Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Twenty-three

Thursday, 5:07 PM Kyiv, Ukraine

The spot that Anton had touched burned, as if the skin and bone and tissue itself was angry to have been found out. How did he know? What did he know?

Her mind became a complete blur. She had never told anyone about that place of pain, that spot that was always tender, often throbbed and sometimes shot out spears of misery. It had been her secret. The pain had grown during her time with JSA, until she had walked away, hoping the agony would also retreat.

How long had the sensation been there? She couldn’t remember ever, in her entire life, being without some feeling of hurt emanating from it. But she had never, not once, not ever, told a single person. Not even her parents.

At the thought of her parents, the blur in her mind released, but what came next was not a relief. Hannah tried to hold the thought she was thinking. But her mind had shut down.

Cleo Twenty-three

Thursday, 5:20 PM Kyiv, Ukraine    

 Her first dinner in Kyiv – boarding house or restaurant? Cleo decided to postpone that decision until after her first vodka. All she knew about the drink was that it should be served cold. How did one order vodka in Kyiv?

 Dressed in new purchases and carrying her giant handbag, she left the apartment building, heading toward the restaurant and bar neighborhood. She passed an Irish pub. In Kyiv? Tempting, but Cleo continued, eyeing the false thatch roof of a bar down the street. Something more authentic?

Her bag vibrated between her arm and waist. She stopped, sat at a bench, pulled out her notepad, tapped the screen. The tracking device had woken up the computer and begun mapping the running man’s new path. Cleo tapped ‘directions’, then ‘current position’, and saw a larger screen display her location compared to the running man’s progress. He was heading toward the restaurants and bars also.

It was lucky, but logical, that he had stayed nearby. Could she follow him without being found herself? Was it necessary to be so secretive? She didn’t have anything to hide. She didn’t know the rules of this society, but felt at ease here. Her shoes and skirt and handbag would certainly give her some cover. Even so, Cleo decided to stay at a distance. There was no need to draw attention.

Cleo looked up to the street sign, confirmed her location, noted with gratitude the ever-present supply of benches for sitting and snooping. Using her notepad computer for directions, she headed off to intercept this mystery man. After this task was complete, she had a vodka waiting for her.

 Two blocks down and one block east according to the computer map, the tracker had rested on the screen. She continued walking. Soon, the cursor marking her position and the tracking device were side-by-side. Cleo looked up to the restaurant. ‘Pavlin’. By the look of the place, the running man had chosen well. She took a seat on a bench nearby, hidden behind the thick foliage of a tree with branches hanging nearly to the sidewalk. What a lovely, heavy aroma.

 Cleo watched the people up and down the street, as she kept tabs on the running man. A group of five young women walked arm-in-arm-in-arm. Their shoes? An array of three- and four-inch pastel heels. Dresses? Close-fitting A-frames, with flaring side pleats. Purses? An assortment of large bags draping from the shoulders. She had gotten it all just right with her own purchases. Cleo would fit right in. She noticed the hair styles. She would almost fit in.

   And then she saw Anton.

 He slowed as he neared the door to the restaurant. Cleo saw the acknowledgment of the running man’s presence and the tilt of the chin to an empty corner table of the outdoor café. She stayed at her perch on the bench. Anton leaned in through the open door of the restaurant, lifted two fingers to place an order, then pointed to the table where the two then sat. Observe or interact, wondered Cleo?

 She had hardly recalled Sandra’s mention of Anton prior to this unscheduled lark. Sandra had business contacts and friendships around the globe. From their one-sentence discussion, Cleo would have thought that Anton was a subordinate, but in a friendly way. She wished now she had asked more questions.

 A waiter delivered the drinks, and Cleo watched as they threw back the first round. Literally. Their heads snapped back and the small glass cups were emptied. Were they drinking vodka? Could she drink it like that?

Cleo gathered up her Ukrainian hand bag and stashed the notepad. She smiled at the sound of her heels announcing her approach. Soon, she was at their table.

  “Vodka? I think I’m ready to toss one down.”

 Anton gestured to the empty chair at his side, showing no surprise and giving no greeting. Cleo wondered how secret her surveillance had been if she hadn’t been able to bring forth some reaction from Anton. All he showed was a slow, deliberate politeness.

 “Sergei, Miss Cleo,” he said, motioning to each in turn.

 “Pleased,” said Sergei in a low voice with the heavy accent Cleo was becoming familiar with in the city, where many people spoke careful English.

 “Nice to meet you,” said Cleo.

 The situation was not what she would have guessed, all this lack of emotion, no show of animation or surprise. Anton motioned to a waiter, placing his thumb over his index finger and letting the leftover three fingers name the quantity. The two men silently waited. If Cleo wanted to learn why she and Hannah were here, she needed to direct the conversation. How should she begin? Three small glasses of vodka were brought to the table.

 Anton and Sergei both raised the glasses. Cleo followed suit. The men toasted in unison, with a single word that seemed to Cleo to go on for longer than words should. The sounds shushed and gagged. They swallowed the drinks in a gulp, Cleo just a moment behind. She resisted the urge to shake her head clear, and immediately decided that vodka could reshuffle anyone’s muddled brain. Jet lag? Gone. Metallic, medicinal, with a lingering taste that was not near as pleasant as straight vinegar left out all night, she shouldn’t enjoy it. But she was ready for a second.

 “I suppose Hannah would understand your Ukrainian toast by now,” said Cleo.

“Little language lady is good study.” Anton spoke, Sergei sat back in his chair, allowing the conversation to take place without him.

   “Sergei, do you know Hannah?” asked Cleo.

 He simply shook his head in answer, not even lifting his eyes to meet hers. Cleo tried again.

 “Anton, you seemed to know Sandra would want me to come with you to Kyiv. How did you know that? How do you know Sandra?”

   “For Ukrainian information, Sandra ask me.”

   “To my knowledge, JSA has never worked here before.”

   “I know places. I make arrangements.”

   “Such as the tour today?” Cleo asked.

   “You new to job, dah?” asked Anton.

 “No, not new at all. I’ve worked with Sandra for five years.” Anton simply shrugged his shoulders. “So, why did you bring Hannah to Kyiv?”

 Anton lifted his fingers in a plea for three more vodkas, and Cleo knew there was an implicit test here. She asked her question again.

   “Why is Hannah in Kyiv?”

   “Learning language. Most important for Hannah,” said Anton.

   “But what’s important to you?”

   “Work. Is simple.”

   “And you aren’t surprised that I show up at your table in this restaurant?”

   “You drink. This, also, simple,” said Anton.

The vodka came. The men closed a fist around their cold glasses, issued a joint toast, and downed the liquid ice.

Cleo thought she saw a flicker of surprise from Anton as she finished her drink. She placed the empty glass steadily on the table. Her stomach growled for food, and perhaps a third shot would not be a good idea, but Cleo could sense from around the table that she had stepped onto the welcome mat of Ukraine, having survived the test of vodka.

Survived? She felt invigorated, flourishing, and barely containing her eagerness for life.

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