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.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Three

Monday, 9:15 AM Los Angeles International Airport

Hannah pulled out her change purse from her backpack, checked the fold where she placed her bills from low to high, and then unzipped to find three quarters, four dimes and one nickel. Hannah stepped up to the line extending out from The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, wishing the aroma of Earl Grey was as ever-present as coffee.

“Did you hear about that kidnapping?”

Just ahead of her in line a man about her age, say 52, nodded toward the TV screen in the adjacent lounge area. She craned her neck up to look at him, a motion that took away even the small social pleasure of conversation. And it was always quite small. Conversation had words, true, but it also had face to face people.

“I rarely watch television,” she said, momentarily looking that direction, seeing the news program format, with a banner running along the bottom, someone’s pretty head talking with serious expression. Never mind the news, she thought, always trouble there. Where was the hum, the layer of comfort that crowded out the overwhelming mix of daily noise? She had learned to cope by using the hum as her mediator to the world.

The man, though, was too close to ignore. He labored over his d’s and t’s, making them more important than they really were, and it annoyed her to have to notice.

Leave it, she told herself. Let him be as tall as he is and say all the collaborative sounds of his background and temperament. Forget him like you forgot the man with murder in his voice. Look up to the scaffolding, think about the shiny packet of Peet’s Earl Grey in your wallet.

“It’s been on radio, too.” He paused like he’d asked a question. She shook her head. His voice had the confident tone of a radio announcer, practiced and orderly, with traces of southern rural influence mostly edited out after years in a city. He wore a grey suit that looked smooth, and moved with him. “Maybe you follow the news tweets?”

“No,” she said.

“I’m a junkie. All news, all day.”

“Aspiring for a heart attack?” she asked, and after a moment’s pause, they laughed that tight, uncomfortable laugh of strangers. Feeling the stab of her comment, she made a conciliatory shrug. It wasn’t his fault she had lost the hum. She would find it again after her coffee. Or tea. “Where are you headed?” she asked.

“Chicago,” he said, then introduced himself, using careless tones and casual lies.

Hannah let her mind reduce his words to fuzzy sounds, like Charlie Brown’s teacher. A woman stepped back from a spot near the door to grab at an errant child, and Hannah listened for the child’s complaint, hoping for a lisp. A scraggly-haired college-looking youth, outfitted with long skinny jeans, a wrinkled tee-shirt, and a heavy canvas bag strapped across his chest joined them in line.

Radioman shined his smile over her head.

“News junkie?” asked Radioman to the youth.

“Primary sources only, man,” said the youth, rushing through his vowels like young people do.

The voices pressed up close to Hannah, challenging her indifference. She looked to the cavern, where the voices had swirled around her, words pulling her this way, then the other. And that one word. Back to the coffee aroma, she thought, let the dense smell distract you, then the whoosh of the steam. Almost a hum itself.

“Have you seen that story?” asked Radioman. “Looks like a middle-eastern type with some sort of kidnap victim. And us getting on a plane.”

“It’s quite a short flight to Chicago,” said Hannah.

“I’m continuing to D.C. At least we’re far away from the Middle East. I caught about ten seconds of the report on the radio. They said the kidnapper gave CNN a live feed. What I want to know is why there’s just that one picture. If there was a live feed, what happened to it?”

The woman pulled her children through the door. The line stepped forward. The younger man brought a thin, wide phone out of his pocket, splayed his hip to balance the bag, and tapped the screen with rapid authority. A technology geek, thought Hannah. She breathed deep, released the words. It wasn’t her business.

“Video feed, you think?” he asked. “Let’s find out.” The geek made sliding motions with a finger. “Hello YouTube. List recent. Nope, not there. How about Reddit? Guess not. Jockular? Ah. Here we go.”

The younger man tilted the phone, clicked on a thumbnail photo of the kidnapping, if that’s what it was. A gritty picture surfaced on the screen. The mother glanced back, gave that holier-than-your-mama look that Hannah had received too often in the classroom.

The young geek, still clicking and scrolling, adjusted the volume and size of the video. He kept his voice sleek, rolling the syllables together. Was there falsehood in his voice? Hannah thought so. That, and a good bit of trouble, cleverly hid behind fast words.

“Here we go. Primary sources. You gotta love them.”

With fractured sound and jerking video, the news-in-a-box photo began to move. A metallic sound cracked through the phone’s speakers. Two people, both masked with loose hoods, faced the camera in a badly-lit room that failed to show any detail that might distinguish them. One stood behind the other in a tight one-armed bear hug. He spoke.

“Spanish,” Hannah said, like a knee-jerk reaction.

She bit her lip, listened for a moment, hoping Geek would speak again in his easy lying voice. Around her, people focused on the kidnapper speaking to the camera. Hannah looked back to the cavern and silenced her own voice, but the screen pulled her attention. Even with the muffled sound, the words called to her. She weighed the temptations and her strength. Then Radioman looked up, and she was caught.

“Doesn’t sound Spanish,” he said. “Sounds Middle Eastern to me.” Hannah looked back to the video, where the man spoke words she knew in tones she had heard often. Radioman continued in that secure ‘knows what he’s talking about’ voice, stressing those d’s, making every other sound stop and pay attention. “Looks Middle-Eastern.”

The hooded man continued to address the video camera, and she knew what the words were, what they meant. The tone, the accent and the familiar sounds all drew her in. Where had she heard these words?

“There’s no doubt,” said Radioman. “Definitely one of those terrorist countries.”

“Terrorist country, you think?” asked Geek.

Radioman waved his hand toward some faraway place, tossing away the blame to another corner of the world. “Someplace in the Middle-East. Just look at their history.”

Falsehoods, all of it. And such ignorance. Then Hannah spoke, without planning, without counting the words or wondering the costs.

“It’s not any Middle-Eastern language,” Hannah said. “His voice is South American Spanish. I know these words. Don’t I know this accent.”

The kidnapper’s words continued, the intonation drawing her in, a pattern she recognized, but couldn’t yet name. Hannah stopped, listened, let her mind retreat ten years while LAX faded into the distant background and the voice from the screen filled her.

Cleo Three

Monday, 9:20 AM Los Angeles International Airport

“Sandra, there’s a crowd sort of gathering around her,” said Cleo.

Cherie, it’s nice that you are keeping me informed, but you really don’t need to call at every step along the way. Didn’t we just speak moments ago?”

“It’s just that it looks a bit intense to me. You said to follow her, but she looks sort of gummed up with people, and I know she won’t like that.”

“That’s quite sweet. You’ve gotten into her head with your research and writing. But now, please remember, you are just following. Watching. Don’t worry about anything else. I have another call, Cherie. I must go. It will all be just fine.”

“Fine?” said Cleo, but her boss was gone.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Two

Present Day, Monday, 9 AM Los Angeles International Airport

Endless pieces of language filled the airport waiting area. Hannah heard them all. She instantly translated eleven Mandarin words as one family passed by. How long had it been? Thirteen years since she had worked in that tongue. And the tonal emotion of the language: love, concern, need, humor, spoken so casually by the throngs gave her intimate knowledge of each talker who passed by.

Not the airport chill, not the slap-slap of a thousand haphazard foot falls, not even the loudspeaker spewing unintelligible sounds could drown out the nearby spoken words. She had hoped that her time spent away from work would dull her skills. She should have known better. Words continued to be everlasting trouble. Even so, just one truly held her attention.

“Don’t,” the man had said into a cell phone. There it was again, forceful, dynamic. Trouble of the worse kind. Among the countless syllables floating around, it pulled at her. “Don’t,” he had said in a killing voice.

Hannah tucked her chin, aimed her head down, and tried to make the words retreat. Especially that one word, spoken in a voice she always understood. The lies people told were sometimes harmless, but the violence, the true heartfelt threat, that understanding brought intense pain. It wasn’t a fair exchange, the pain for the violent truth. But it wasn’t her business any longer and hadn’t been for ten years.

During that intervening decade, she had tolerated occasional bouts of substitute teaching, saving up for this trip, a small excursion after so many years of traveling the world for work. She had trained herself to be careful, to remain hidden. Today, the voices surrounded her, echoing into the cavern of the waiting area gates, and called for her attention. Would that one word send her fleeing back home, hiding in her made-up life for another decade until she could venture out again? She didn’t have that many decades left.

If only she could observe from a distance, like she used to, pulling sounds as she saw fit and taking her time to study the tone, syllabication, context and connection to the speaker. Or she could let the hum take over, the only time she could ever have peace. It had taken her years to perfect the hum that covered up all the other sounds.

A nearby aroma caught Hannah’s attention. She needed a distraction, and paused by The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, resenting the bully scent of coffee over the delicate subtlety of tea. But here, she could withdraw from the chaotic vocal crowd. She took a breath, stepped toward the café.

Hannah had exact plans; she had only to put one foot in front of the other and push the languages into the background.

Cleo Two

Present Day, Monday, 9:10 AM Los Angeles International Airport

“P-l-z,” Cleo tapped into her phone for the fourth time.

N-o-n,” her boss sent the instant response.

Cleo wondered why Sandra sent messages in French. It only complicated things. And Cleo didn’t need more complications this morning. The early flight from Panamá City, Panamá had been enough.

“E-x-t-r-e-m-e-l-y O-d-d L-t-l W-o-m-a-n,” she sent.

E-t A-l-o-r-s?”

Cleo continued to follow the woman through the waiting area of LAX Terminal Six. She worked her thumb against the phone until Hannah Prudence Antrim’s photo appeared. The woman didn’t look ten years older than the photo, just ten years weirder, and she’d had a head start on weird. Cleo wished again for her office at John Smith and Associates: uncluttered, infused with cucumber seed essential oil, a safe place where she could reveal her clients in written form. Writing, the thing she did best, in a climate-controlled office using other written information to validate her own. She had her reputation to look after, built on writing, not foot-work.

Cleo took a deep breath, felt the tightness of her hand around the silent phone, and consciously relaxed the tension. Observe the client, she told herself. That’s what Carlos would do. Responsible, steady, talented Carlos. And young, the other employees said. When would she meet him in person? Maybe that would be the pay-back from this absurd task. They had nicknamed him Phantom. He could be anywhere and look like anyone. Observe Hannah. Her agency wasn’t a policing group, did not enter dangerous situations. She could observe this woman and safely survive this test. Maybe even meet Carlos.

Hannah wore loose khaki pocket pants with a three-inch wide belt, a heavy white over-shirt ironed to a spray-starched sheen and carried a filled back pack. She had hair so short it was probably called a boy’s cut. Cleo tried to name the hair color. Maybe fading taupe. From across the crowded airport waiting room, her middle-aged Anglo face had that no-makeup look. She was so short she could get lost in a crowd, but would never blend in.

The woman had supported her thrifty lifestyle by substitute-teaching as Hannah Black for the past nine years. The people who knew her before said she knew languages like no one else on earth. John Smith and Associates had paid well for her expertise until she had run away. They’d never been able to replace her. Weird she was, but also brilliant. Now, those one-of-a-kind skills had pulled attention back to her. That, and the airplane ticket.

“J-o-b f-o-r C-a-r-l-o-s, t-h-i-s,” Cleo tapped into her phone.

“C-a-l-l m-e,” came the response from Sandra, the one who usually reached out.

Cleo did not call; her boss could wait. She pocketed the phone, aware that the earpiece was still an open line of communication. Cleo knew that she had neglected this part of the job for too long. Neglected, talked her way out of, made deals to avoid. She let LAX fully reassert itself. Cleo had written the official update to Hannah’s file, so she knew the verbal soup of the airport would threaten the other woman’s calm.

Hannah would search for a place to get a cup of hot water, nothing else, just hot water, into which she would place a sterile tea bag of Peet’s Earl Grey. She would count out two minutes, dip the bag four times, squeeze out the remains, and find a trash receptacle, regretting the need for a bag in place of loose tea leaf. Hannah would stand to drink the brew, but she would not lean against the dirty walls in public places. Soon she would begin to show signs of irritation: too much noise, too many people moving around.

Cleo glanced to the crowd, noticing the swarm of humankind. It took effort, almost break-a-sweat effort, to keep track of Hannah. She would never be like most people, but she could hide behind almost anyone, and a family of four or five gave her more than enough cover. Sandra had assured Cleo this was a simple morning’s walk through an airport following an eccentric woman. No big deal. The others would be close by to do what they do; her part was to follow. Nothing more than simple observation.

Cleo tapped her earpiece, placed the call to Sandra.

“I am so good at writing reports. People love my reports. I can’t write them when I’m in an airport following odd folk,” Cleo said.

If only she could survive this one street-level contact, Cleo might be able to stay in her clean office and her dream job. Let Carlos have the street-work. He was probably a slob with a dirty half-grown beard.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

by Susan Vasquez

© 2019 by Susan Vasquez

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from Susan Vasquez. Reviewers are welcome, of course, to quote brief passages.

Hannah One

Ten Years ago, Panamá City, Panamá

Trouble. She heard every bit of trouble. Hannah was the magnet; ominous voices were her metallic bits of bother. For decades, these spoken sounds had added their burden, burying her in pain. She waved the heat away from her face with a paper fan. She placed two fingertips on the bone at the back of her left ear. Whenever she heard trouble, Hannah felt the pain.

She stood with Michael and Rico on the curb 30 feet away from their client and the man he was meeting. Michael aimed the antenna from his cell phone toward the conversation. All three listened through wireless earplugs.

“Call it, Hannah,” said Rico. “Threat or no threat? Do your thing.”

“Come on, Hannah Banana, what do the voices tell you?” asked Michael.  “Is this guy serious?”

“Let it out, Hanny. Turn us loose.”

“You two are livelier than the poor coffee salesman, and he thinks he has something to worry about,” said Hannah. “Why did we have to come here? Did his company receive a threat?” Michael shook his head. “Just a suspicion?” Rico gave a shrugging nod. “It must have been a well-paying client. Have they been here long?”

“Half hour.”

A passing bus broadcast vivid, beating sounds from a local radio station and gave Rico an excuse – not that he ever needed one – to dance a side step of the cumbia. With the motion, he turned his back toward the restaurant, giving Hannah a better view. The steam of downtown Panamá City, Panamá rose from the metal awning of the restaurant where the two conversing men sat.

But Hannah already knew her job was done. This meeting was motivated by ambition with a touch of jealousy, not violence. She heard all the detail in the one man’s voice. They watched from outside the patio restaurant as the last part of the conversation played out – intense, but not alarming, perhaps a financial concern. She didn’t even detect a spoken lie. Hannah could sign off on the threat assessment. This time, someone else could deal with the trouble and she could try to let the sounds fade away.

She breathed deep, hoping for relief, wishing things would change. But even this quick resolution of her assignment hadn’t stopped the spears of pain running from that tender spot in back of her ear to clash behind her eyes. How could she get rid of the pain?

Slowly Hannah shook her head and glanced up at Rico and Michael.

“No threat,” she said.

The animation drained from their faces.

“We came all this way? Come on, Hanny,” said Rico, “give us something to do. Please.”

“There’s nothing to fix here,” said Hannah.

“Then make something up.”

“Go home,” she said.

“Please. Something small.” As Rico spoke, Michael put a hand on his arm, nodding his head toward the side street, a retreat. But Rico continued, with a laughing plea. “Hannah. You’re the One. You don’t even have to explain yourself to the Boss. You always get it right. Like a machine. No one will notice a tiny favor. Just give us one little thing. Follow them for a day? Please?”

Hannah watched as Michael became more successful in distracting Rico. He put his cell phone in his pocket, turned his baseball cap forward, nodded at Hannah, took a step away. Working with these two young men the past three years had nearly made Hannah’s pain go away. She touched the bone behind her left ear. She was sure she was right. There was distress, but nothing more in the voices, no true malice, no violent backstory sound. No threat. No falsehood. She had hoped the piercing throb would retreat with the absence of a killing intent. But it hadn’t. And it wasn’t because Rico had compared her to a machine. She wasn’t a machine. It was time for Hannah to follow through with her decision.

“See you two later,” she said.

Hannah walked away from them, like it was just a normal day, knowing they would never hear the lie in her own voice.

Cleo One

Ten Years Ago, Marion, Iowa

The salad lay before her on the white hexagonal tiles of her mother’s kitchen in Marion, Iowa. Only the cucumbers waited to be sliced, then placed on top, in a crisscross pattern, like always. Is this why Cleo had graduated college? So she could come back home, make the Saturday afternoon salad and sit for two hours listening to her mother and aunt talk about Harry’s receding hairline and Vera’s trips to the fat farm?

“Did you put just a spritz of Tabasco in the French dressing?”

“Yes, Auntie,” said Cleo.

She scored the cucumbers, releasing the fresh scent that always relaxed her. Maybe things would work out. Perhaps IBM International would hire her, and maybe then she could work her way to one of the smaller, elite consultancy firms: John Smith and Associates, giving advice to businesses engaged in international trade.

“How are things coming along, Cleo? For heaven’s sake, you do love to dally.”

“Just fine, Mother. Almost done.”

She breathed in again. Maybe all that could happen. Cleo picked up the salad from the aged tiles. This had been her Great Grandmother Cleola’s house, then her grandmother’s house, now her mother’s. How did she get all the way to her goals from this kitchen in Marion, when each female forebear of her family had stayed, alone?

Walking with a book in hand

If you are still staying close to home, like me, you might be getting close to the end of your bookshelf supply. To help things out, I am serializing a novel I wrote, putting up a chapter a day throughout September until the book is done. Happy reading – I hope you enjoy “Vowels, Vodka and Voices.”

Hannah hears every voice around her. Every utterance, every syllable, everything spoken. When Hannah listens, intentions and hidden meanings are revealed. She hears things she may not want to know. She hears people’s secrets.

            Words – in eight languages – give her information normal people never notice. Hannah knows her skill is precious, but it comes at a cost. With each reclaimed secret, a pain grew in the soft bone behind her ear. Thousands of secrets over a 20-year career amounted to more pain than Hannah could endure. She sought peace. She left her agency, changed her name and hid for ten years, trying to escape the enormous hurt.

But an old problem has found its way to her former employer, and only Hannah can fix it. John Smith and Associates are in a tangle of vowels, vodka and voices that hold the past’s secrets. They send scouts to find her and bring her back. The question isn’t can Hannah solve their problem. The question is, does she want to?