Tuesday, 12:55 PM St. Louis, Missouri
The bus driver climbed the steps, reached over the seat and started the engine. The action needed no words to announce to the passengers their last call. Most were already in their seats. Hannah looked over her shoulder, adjusting her backpack strap, as she waited in the building’s shadow. She looked for the Ukrainian, whose name might be Anton, if Carlos was to be trusted.
The part of her mind devoted to languages reminded her there was so much more to know, and few people to teach her. Anton, though, could. If she stopped now, with such a learning experience right before her, she may never fill that gap between speaking this new language like a toddler and speaking as adults should. Three more hours in the bus, even that would get her to an acceptable level, not an educated speaker of Ukrainian, of course, but communicative.
The other part of her mind begged caution. That mental voice, refined by working for JSA for the better part of two decades, reminded her to listen to professional advice. When she had fled John Smith and his troupe, it had been to deal with the overwhelming hurt, not because they had failed in their jobs. Maybe she didn’t care to return to work, but she should certainly use their expertise to make her travels safe. If Carlos warned her about Anton, there must be a reason.
Carlos said Anton didn’t always tell the truth, but Anton’s voice so far, as much as she could tell, had been clean, without strong emotion, relaxed. Did Anton mean to cause Hannah harm? She tentatively touched the spot behind her ear. He’d have to talk to Hannah for that to matter, and so far, he hadn’t said a word directly to her. And if he did, would that be bad? Such a rich learning experience, but at what cost? In a public place, she could always just walk away if things got tense.
The engines revved. Hannah took one step toward the bus from under the waiting area awning. Three passengers ran from the station and boarded. But Anton did not appear. She looked toward the shops area, looked around the far side of the bus. No Anton. With just the one open door next to the driver, she could not have missed the Ukrainian.
What did Hannah want from this trip? To learn a new language or to ride a bus to Kansas City?
What compelled her to follow the Ukrainian inside the station? And why should she continue the search? Twenty years ago, she might have owed JSA enough to follow Anton, but now, it was about the language. Certainly, just the language. There weren’t that many major tongues in the world she hadn’t mastered and this one called to her like no other. She almost would describe it as irresistible.
Anton, though, was nowhere to be seen, so Hannah’s loyalties and her quest for one more language might not find a resolution. The bus driver leaned forward, pushed a button on the console, and the door gave a hiss.
Hannah simply watched the unrepentant action around her. The door closed. The bus eased out of the diagonal parking space. Hannah stood still. The driver hadn’t looked her direction. Her fellow passengers did not clamor at her absence. Maybe she did not matter to that incidental series of events in that moment when she was left behind.
But it did mean something to Hannah. It helped her decide.
She had her pack, with her ticket tucked in the pocket, and nothing to lose. She would find Anton and convince him to help her learn the language. A cup of tea together, a long walk inside the station. Hannah could learn much of what she needed in that amount of time. She took a step back toward the station, then stopped.
Anton Smirnov stood a few feet away in the shadows between her and the safety of the retail area. He looked directly at Hannah, blew a thin line of smoke from his mouth, and scowled.
“You missed the bus,” she said in English.
“You, also, missed bus.”
“I most certainly did.”
The man looked at Hannah with intensity, with something else she couldn’t name. Why was this man so intriguing? Was it the language, the accent? She calmed her breath, alerted her listening ear. This study of language was her a-b-c’s. If she could get him to converse, she could know every important detail.
“You little lady with language,” he said. “You know what people saying?”
Hannah wanted to object to the description, but forced herself instead to listen for the trill of the ‘r’ sound and the heaviness of ‘l’.
“Can you repeat that?” she said.
“You know what people saying. Is right?”
Hannah heard the grip of the ‘g’. She thought about the unnecessary force in his words, a cultural link into the sound of his primary language. What social fabric would give birth to such vocal posturing? Would she be able to hear violence in this voice, so different from her native tongue? Would she hear the lie, if it was present?
“Say to me ‘language’ in English and Ukrainian,” she said.
Anton gestured with impatience as he removed the cigarette, then spoke. “Movu. Movu. Language. I think you know this.”
The voice was riddled with defensiveness, but she could hear no violent intent in his words.
“Say to me ‘bus station’,” she said.
“Why this bus station, language? Are we children?” Anton placed the cigarette on his bottom lip, where it waggled as he spoke. “I have question.”
“Ah. That’s better. See how you relaxed? No tension.”
But could she reliably read violence in this new-to-her culture?
“I still have question.”
‘Please, ask whatever you like.”
“You come to Ukraine? I have job for you.”
“Of course not, not that,” said Hannah. “A walk while we talk, perhaps.”
“Is beautiful country. You hear language. You come?”
How did he know that would appeal to her? She was surprised at his words. Should she be frightened? How much did he know about her? And why?
“Why would you ask such a thing? I have no passport.”
She stopped the sentence short as she reminded herself she had no passport as Hannah Black. But, she did have a passport. How did this man know her? Finding out might take more than a walk.
“Maybe you come…”
His smile relaxed Hannah. He said the words with a rhythm, a sing-song. She had detected no threat in the voice, but was it because she simply couldn’t yet read the accent in his spoken English? In his native Ukrainian, his intentions would be evident, but Ukrainian was one language she didn’t know. Now that she herself might be the target, could she evaluate the threat?
“So, this is not coincidence,” she said. “You know who I am?”
“You little language lady. Yes, I know. You have two Hannah names. You have passport. Passport no problem.”
“Why would you know that?”
Anton smiled as the nearly-spent cigarette arced upward.
He bent toward Hannah and said, “Our friend, Sandra, she tell me.”
“Why would your friend Sandra know about me and my vacation?”
“Sandra is John Smith and Associates,” said Anton.
“That means nothing to me.”
“You test me. You know language. You know what I say.”
He was asking the same question she had asked herself. Could she give herself a guarantee of safety, as she had thousands of clients before? As she waited, Anton spoke again.
“Am I friendly man?”
He put the cigarette out of its misery on the sidewall of the nearest column. He smiled and raised his eyes to Hannah, nudging out a response from her.
If Hannah judged the man on appearance, with his low-hanging and belted slacks, his raincoat with its many pockets, and his indeterminate middle-aged look with that smile that did not quite convince, she would never feel secure. But Hannah possessed a skill that she had avoided for years. She still believed it was valid. She was confident this man was no threat to her. He may be complex, yes, like most people. But there was no menace in his voice. And there was a pull in his language that tickled the back of her memory.
She breathed deep and gave herself the assessment she would have given Michael and Rico ten years before. No threat. She could sense no violence in this man’s words.
Tuesday, 1:05 PM St. Louis, Missouri
“No way in the seven heavenly virtues am I going to follow Anton Smirnov through St. Louis, a place I do not know, in a car I can barely drive. I don’t really have any gas left. None at all.”
“Can you get a quick photo and send? The two together if you can, but just him would be fine.”
“Sandra, I have not been trained in any sort of surveillance, to the extent that I don’t even have the vocabulary to tell you what I do not know. I can’t…”
“It’s a simple photo. Pretend it’s a selfie. Just tap reverse. Good God, you should know how to do that.”
“I’m not nearly close enough,” said Cleo. “It would look too suspicious. Oh for heaven’s sake, I am so sure Carlos is here. Can’t he…?”
“Oh. He just did, Cherie. I’m looking at a picture of the two of them now. Well, well. Yes, my dear, I think you’ll be following along. We can’t have my friend Anton traipsing around with Hannah all by himself. They make a truly odd couple, don’t they?”
“No, Sandra. I am done.”
“You can make a guess as to where they’re going, Miss Cleo. Now, this is all beginning to make some sense. I’m sure you’ve heard me mention Anton.”
“Nearest international airport. Chicago will have flights to Ukraine. Just get yourself there, and we’ll figure out something on our end. Everything will be fine.”
“Not St. Louis. Never Chicago. Ukraine? Absolutely not.”
“Who would have guessed it’d be Anton?” said Sandra.
“You can’t just find people in O’Hare. It’s not that easy.”
“This may actually be a bit of genius.”
“Good thing we always prepare for the possibilities. You’ll meet with someone in Chicago.”