Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Thirty-two

Friday, 1:10 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine

Lunch came oven-baked in a crock, with a blend of root vegetables and unusual flavors. Delicious. The bread was dark-colored with a heavy crust and soft inside.

Hannah listened to Anton ask Cleo a question, heard Cleo’s perfunctory answer. She wondered about the sounds, but it did not occupy her mind. The restaurant seemed tranquil, relaxing. Was it simply this place itself, able to produce a lull in life’s usual complexity? Maybe some of Hannah’s sense of calm came from the utter, complete lack of pain.

Hannah breathed deep. Even the smoky atmosphere brought the comfort of peacefulness.

People talked, back and forth, in calm and ease. The wait staff carried food and plates here and there in a mealtime rhythm, commenting as they set down their selections. Patrons seemed to linger, to enjoy their conversation. This place was a haven. Complete charm, absolute comfort. Indistinguishable chatter went on contentedly around her. She had no pain.

Something was very, very wrong.

Cleo Thirty-two

Friday, 1:15 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine

Cleo ate without thinking much about the food. Hannah seemed preoccupied with her tea and the view out the window. Anton played the host with a mixed-up version of some language that Cleo stopped trying to understand.

She had begun the conversation with Anton to figure out a schedule for the work Hannah would do, but could not understand the maxi-lingual answer Anton gave. She felt a headache coming on, intensified by the interior smoke. As the meal ended, she excused herself again, visited the restroom, then walked outside.

And saw Carlos. He was resting against the wooden fence that lined one of the walkways. Cleo approached. He looked a bit more fatigued than she remembered.

“Should I be surprised to find you here?” said Cleo. “Because I’m not. Not at all. But I am surprised at how tired you look.”

“Finding my way around a country without language skills can be tough. I’ll admit to that.”

“No Ukrainian?”

“None. Not much Russian, either.”

“Unusual feeling, being without good language skills?” asked Cleo.

 “If you two hadn’t taken some time getting your stuff together back at the boarding house, I would never have made it here on time.”

“How are you finding us?”

“I am a bit better-trained in those tracking devices than you. And mine lasts much longer.”

“I did pretty well, considering.”

“That you did. Clever, the one you put on the runner. Battery life is short on those, right?”

“Right. I was so proud to have followed him. Why can’t I convey my cleverness to Sandra?”

Carlos hmphed, a sound not a word. “She’s a tall order, that one.”

“Who’s your contact at JSA?”

Carlos crossed his arms, placed one heel against the wooden rail behind him.

“So. Where is Anton taking you from here?”

“You don’t answer my question, but I’m supposed to answer yours? Don’t we work together, for the same agency?”

“For the same agency, that’s right,” said Carlos.

Cleo heard a gobble, and looked toward a grassy area, counting four turkeys walking toward the river. Why wouldn’t Carlos tell her who his direct boss was? She’d assumed it was JS himself. It made her feel hesitant.

“So, you are tracking us. That was probably easier in Kyiv.”

“Yup.”

“Have you found anyone here who speaks English?”

“Nope.”

“German?” asked Cleo.

“Some.”

“English, Spanish, German. What other languages do you speak?”

“Who said anything about Spanish.”

“I can tell. I live in Panamá City, remember? So, Carlos. Why can’t we make this simple? Why don’t you just join us?”

“Better to have someone on the outside.”

“Come on. You and me working together? Wouldn’t that make this easier? Can’t you just tell me why JSA is interested in following Hannah? You must have an idea.”

“They have their reasons. Have you gotten anything from Anton?”

“There’s no way to guess what Anton is thinking or where he plans to go. I am sure he knows, but I’m not going to get any specific answer from him. I can’t get him to talk about the purpose for Hannah’s trip here. Isn’t that why JSA is interested?”

“I suppose,” he said.

“I know that Hannah is a brilliant interpreter. I know she can learn completely new languages like I learn a repetitive nursery rhyme in my mother tongue. But my guess is that JSA wants her for her ability to judge the truth. She can do that in every language she knows, right?

“That and a bit more is my guess.”

“And that’s why JSA needs her?”

Carlos looked away, scanning the pathway. “That’d be my guess.”

But his words had lost their life. He spoke flat, unconvincing sounds. Maybe jet-lag had pushed him to let his guard down, but Cleo was sure that Carlos had just told a lie himself.

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