Tuesday, 1:10 PM St. Louis, Missouri
No risk at all, she decided, and such a huge gain, to practice that alluring new Ukrainian language in the country itself. If she wanted to spend a moment in self-reflection, she would have to admit she felt quite a bit younger at the moment. In her twenties and thirties, traveling to a foreign country had been second nature. And she was wiser now. No risk at all.
Then she touched the spot in back of her ear, testing the hurt. It had held her hostage for ten years, this need to escape the pain. Was she ready to let the past back in? Even though she had pride in the work she had done for JSA, there was always the hurt. Perhaps it had faded, but it was always there. Would the intensity return with the simple study of a new language? What else might have changed in her abilities since she had withdrawn from contact?
There were also the details of the trip: her visa, the method of transport, the uncomfortable journey itself. An airplane. And who was this man, Anton? Perhaps he wasn’t dangerous, but that left a wide array of other possibilities. What was his business and why did it include her? Of course, it was all related to John Smith and his associates. She may trust their professionalism, but she had never met Sandra, and had no desire to return to that life.
All those considerations swept into her mind in a bundled onslaught. She was 53 years old. Hannah turned to face Anton, and, as he lit a new cigarette, she decided and spoke.
“Of course, it is impossible. I am very happy to have met you, but the trip itself is impossible. Thank you very much for the language. You speak a magnificent tongue that isn’t easily available. Goodbye.”
“Wait. You learn language. I give 30-day Ukraine vacation. No problem.”
“The problems are no doubt many and varied. And 30 days is out of the question.”
Anton shrugged his shoulders, relaxed, confident.
“Ten is good. Every American has Ukraine visa. You have vacation. Is no problem.”
“There is so much more than the visa. It is tempting, but I have already a planned trip to get back to.”
“Airplane ticket, no problem. Everything arranged. Is simple job. Like job for John Smith. You give me little help, no more than short morning, then you learn language. There are three, you know.”
“Three languages?” asked Hannah.
How was that possible? He couldn’t be correct. But, in a forgotten space in her mind, a thought attempted to break through. More than just Ukrainian. Was it true? Anton believed it to be, that she could tell.
The sudden entrance or re-entrance into the realm of her former employer, their stubborn tracing of her steps, the hesitance of Cleo and Carlos when the three of them had met up, now the Ukrainian man with an intriguing offer. Hannah knew none of this was coincidence. And she didn’t like much of it.
But she did like the language. It had been years since she had been so intrigued. Hannah had no place she had to be. She had a passport, and was beginning to forget her reasons for disliking them.
She couldn’t recall the last time a language had called to her as Hannah Black. Hannah Antrim had traveled the world and sought out languages, working exactly this type of situation. If Anton knew how much she wanted to hear this language and classify its rules, he might have asked her to pay for the privilege. Imagine hearing the language spoken on its very own sidewalk. She was 53 years young.
“Three languages. One plane ride,” Anton said, breathing out smoke.
She had handled herself for decades in much less secure situations. She touched again the sensitive spot, reassured herself of the honesty in Anton’s words. They almost sounded familiar. She could do this.
“One plane ride might be a slight distortion of facts, but you make a decent point, don’t you? Alright. I’ll do it. Five days.”
“Dobre. Good. We leave from here, St. Louis. I have tickets.”
Anton clapped his hands once, pushed off from the wall he had leaned against.
“A flight from St. Louis to Ukraine?” said Hannah. “It doesn’t seem likely.”
“Is all arranged. Many people take Ukrainian women out of country. Who bring women to Ukraine? Me. Maybe I get medal.” He pulled out his phone, tapped, then held it up to his ear. Hannah heard the ring. He flicked cigarette ash to the side. “The young woman, she coming, also, dah?”
“A young woman?” asked Hannah. “Who are you talking about?”
Anton nodded his head toward the interior of the station, then spoke soft words into his phone. Hannah looked, and there, behind the wall of glass, she saw Young Cleo quickly turn to hide her face.
Tuesday, 1:15 PM St. Louis, Missouri
He was walking toward the station. Cleo noticed Hannah had stayed behind near the long parking spaces where several buses waited. Theirs, Cleo believed, had left without them. At least she didn’t have to deal with the complication of getting Hannah off the bus.
Cleo decided this was her chance to speak with Hannah by herself. She knew Hannah had seen her. She could slip past this Anton fellow and convince Hannah to do – what? Was she really going to do what Sandra asked? Sandra had assured her that it would all end at O’Hare. Wasn’t that what her boss had meant? Cleo needed help. Maybe she could call up the scoundrels again. Maybe their help would work this time.
Cleo felt ridiculous to even be here, watching this play out. It was past time for her to begin to think – and act – on her own. Once she started, she may even figure out why on earth a smart woman like Hannah would be talking to the ominous man who was getting closer and closer to Union Station.
Cleo turned her back to the swinging doors as Anton walked through, stepping out of his line of sight, but she kept Hannah in her vision. Hannah had proved before that she could slip away.
She felt a tap on her shoulder. She waited. Cleo knew it was Anton. How had he spotted her? She hadn’t heard his step, hadn’t sensed his change in direction. What did he know about her? Sandra hadn’t said she’d contacted him. She’d been surprised at his presence. Had Hannah pointed her out?
“Hello Miss Cleo. You friend to Sandra? You come to Ukraine. Is right?”
Cleo slowly turned to face the man. He had a polite, pained smile on his face as if he was attempting to put on an expression that was not a comfortable fit.
“How do you know me?”
“Everything safe. Ask Sandra. She tell you come, no?”
“I think I’ll talk to Hannah.” As Cleo stepped toward the door, the Ukrainian laughed heartily. He pulled a cigarette pack from a pocket, tapped one out, offered it to Cleo. “Absolutely not,” she said. “You stay and smoke. I’ll go see Hannah.”
“She come to Ukraine. She love language. Is curious. Little language lady come.”
Cleo regarded the man. He appeared calm, confident. Had Sandra contacted him? She had mentioned possibilities, but certainly even Sandra could not pull off arranging international flights on the spur of the moment. O’Hare International no doubt had rules that could alter even simple plans, and following Hannah had been anything but simple.
This adventure had changed so unpredictably. Logic told Cleo that it would change again, that she would not need to go to Ukraine, and that would undoubtedly be to Cleo’s benefit.
“Let’s just go ask Hannah,” she said.