Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Eighteen

Tuesday, 1:18 PM St. Louis, Missouri

   Anton had boldly walked up to Cleo’s turned back just inside the train station’s entrance. Hannah did not hear their conversation, but spent a pleasant moment chuckling at what the exchange might have been. Why Cleo should need to accompany them was not Hannah’s concern. Someone else, perhaps this unknown woman Sandra, would make that decision.

   Hannah watched now as they approached her together. Cleo appeared to be attempting a break away from Anton, who easily strode alongside without looking rushed.

   “Is everyone ready for a Ukrainian side trip?” asked Hannah as soon as Cleo was close.

   “Can I speak with you alone?” asked Cleo, devoid of expression.

   “There is no need, Young Cleo. I assume Anton has invited you along. Of course, you needn’t come, and I certainly would prefer to go alone. But my guess is that your job will require it. How much do you like your job? That is the question you should be asking.”

   “This has been a ridiculous assignment from the beginning,” said Cleo.

“I completely agree, but that is an issue for your agency to explain to you, which they apparently have not done. It is none of my concern.”

“Surely you understand that going to a foreign country on a moment’s notice will draw suspicion you might not want? You’re the one with the unexplained name change,” said Cleo.

   “Good for you. You are using your very own words this time. Nicely done. Anton, what do you have to say about our companion’s concern? Will it be suspicious? That would be worse for you than for me.”

   “Is good. Travel no problem for Hannah Antrim. No problem for Miss Cleo. Even Sandra may come. Bring women to Ukraine, no problem.”

   “So you’ve already said, in a most questionable fashion,” said Hannah.

   “Is joke. You Americans joke. I like American humor.” He took a long drag on his cigarette.

   “Perhaps. But Anton, something has come to my attention. During this trip to Ukraine, you are to sit near me and let me hear your Ukrainian voice. I, in return, will teach you about the correct use of verbs in the English language.”

   “Verbs not necessary. You understand, no?”

   “Yes, I understand. Verbs may not be as necessary in the Ukrainian language, but in English they make communication succeed. In English, you need them. And you should use them correctly.”

   “May I interrupt this language lesson,” said Cleo, after a prolonged and dramatic sigh, “to get us back to the issue at hand?”

   “I phone talk English. Everyone understand,” said Anton.

   “Articles, also, Anton. The, a, an. You must develop an ear for using articles.”

   “I have ear for time. We go to airport. Fly home.” Anton tapped at his phone, showed the round clock app.

   “Let’s discuss the airport,” said Cleo.

   “And our agreement, Anton, is for five days,” said Hannah.

   “Dah. Five days.”

   Whether it was Cleo’s impatient shifting posture or Anton’s improving good humor, Hannah began to let the lure of the language draw her in. For a five-day commitment she could learn one language and perhaps be exposed to two others. She could annoy Cleo, which was becoming an enticing motivation.

Damn the swollen ankles and the aching back of a trans-Atlantic flight. Anton had convinced her with his open, truthful words in a language that was her own. And then he had promised three more. Ukraine beckoned.

   “You mentioned the St. Louis airport. Cleo has a tired rental car to return, and perhaps some luggage to retrieve, so I suggest we get on with it.”

   Along they went, Cleo with an absurdly unhappy bitter-lemon look aimed at her phone, Anton walking his drawn-out lumbering pace. Hannah touched the bony part of the back of her ear, and wondered where, exactly, this journey would take her.

Cleo Eighteen

Tuesday, 1:25 PM St. Louis, Missouri

   If there was an airport in St. Louis, it couldn’t possibly handle international travel. Was the plan to fly to Chicago, then Ukraine? How would that affect Sandra’s plans? When could Cleo bow out?

   She tapped her phone with sweating fingers as she passed the rental car keys to the clerk. Sandra answered the call.

   “Have you found Anton?” Sandra asked.

   Cleo heard the background noise of an elevator opening and closing, foot traffic and then the whoosh of revolving doors. No, she had not found Anton. He had most definitely found her, but Cleo did not need to confess it.

   “Did you know Anton intends us all three to go to Ukraine?” asked Cleo.

   “I suppose there’s always been that possibility, Cherie. But it likely won’t come to that. Which doesn’t mean your job is done. Just let me do my part. Everything will be fine.”

   “I have never understood why we are following this woman. Why are we?”

   “Good lord. The scoundrels never ask why. Carlos never asks why. They are happy to go wherever and snoop on whomever.”

Sandra’s heels clicked against a sidewalk, cars sounded horns and sped up. Cleo could close her eyes and see Avenida Balboa, the busy downtown Panamá City street in front of their main office.

   “Sandra, there’s a lot of ambient noise. It makes no sense for me to be going along on this trip, especially now. Anton won’t answer questions about the flight, and Hannah has been seduced by the language. It’s all crazy.”

Voices mumbled in the background, perhaps at a street corner. Cleo signed the rental receipt.

   “Are you still there?” asked Sandra. “It will all make perfect sense, Cherie. Just keep it up for a bit longer.”

   “Hannah has bargained him down to five days. What is all this about?”

   “Just get to O’Hare. We’ll have things figured out by then.” Sandra must have pulled the phone away as the street noise took over, obscuring her final words.

   “What did you say? The last part?”

   “We’ll figure things out.”

   “I heard that, Sandra. But, listen. Anton says he’s flying us out of St. Louis. Is that possible? A flight to Ukraine from St. Louis?”

   “Anton says a lot of things. Certainly, any international flight will depart from O’Hare. Damn these Panamanian traffic laws that no one follows.”

Sandra’s heels stopped clicking against the pavement.

   “What if it doesn’t?” asked Cleo, competing with the sound of car horns and Sandra’s heels tapping again with determination.

   “Doesn’t what?”

   “What if the arrangements aren’t through Chicago?”

   The heels stopped abruptly.

   “Wait,” said Sandra. “An airfield in St. Louis? No, it’s not possible. The scoundrels will be waiting for you in Chicago.”

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