Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Fifteen

Tuesday, 12:40 PM St. Louis, Missouri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Allow me to help you, ma’am.”

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

“Why, Carlos, you continue to surprise.”

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

They walked together out the bagel shop door.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cleo Fifteen

Tuesday, 12:50 PM St. Louis, Missouri

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

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

“Where are you?”

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

“You’re still in Mendota?”

“No, St. Louis.”

“The man is there?”

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

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

“Anton?”

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

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

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

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

“Carlos?”

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

“Are you certain it is Anton?”

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

“How close are you?”

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

“Maybe or definitely?”

“No. Not Asian. Dark hair?”

“That’s Anton.”

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

“The tango?”

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