Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Thirty

Friday, 7:45 AM Kyiv, Ukraine

Young Cleo had grudgingly poured herself a cup of coffee. Hannah had laughed at her attempt to pull a more substantial breakfast out of the refrigerator. Apparently, her cooking skills did not include heating Ukrainian leftovers.

As Hannah sipped the last of her second cup of wonderful tea – was it birch? – the swinging door swung and in plunged Anton.

“We go to Chernihiv,” he said, clapped his hands once and nodded his head.

Then he stood aside the open door as if Hannah and Cleo would march out at his command, ready for anything.

“What?” asked Cleo, poised near the refrigerator with a coffee mug in hand and a sideways look of concern.

“Chernihiv. We go to Chernihiv.”

“Where is that?”

Cleo asked the question, and seemed suspicious at the proposed change. Hannah, though, was ready to play out this next part of the adventure. She had been reluctant to change her train travel plans, and would not have ventured here without the promise of language. But now, she was pain-free for the first time in her memory. This next adventure might deliver on even more.

“North,” said Anton. “We drive. Is nice ride. To Chernihiv.”

“Where I will hear more delightful Ukrainian spoken?” asked Hannah.

Nyet. Of course, not Ukrainian,” said Anton.

“This is where Hannah will do the work you’ve asked her to perform?” asked Cleo.

Dah, dah, dah,” said Anton.

“Not Ukrainian?” asked Hannah. “So, it must be that interesting mixture of languages. Surgic, I believe it is called?”

“Of course not,” said Anton. “Why speak Surgic in Chernihiv?”

“The city is in Ukraine, isn’t it?” asked Cleo.

“Of course is Ukraine. Chernihiv, Ukraine. Where we speak Russian.”

The double wood doors flew open. Olga, buttoning up her duster and still in worn-down slippers, burst into the room. Her look of fear and fury gave Hannah a moment of sympathy. Olga would be running hard all day to catch up for one morning of sleeping in. She made flicking motions with her hands to shoo them out of the kitchen.

Hannah placed her tea cup on the table and rose. She was eager to hear a new language – the third in Ukraine. Fluency in Russian, she had always wanted that. From what she had learned about the Ukrainian language, there were many and significant differences between the two. 

But as far as work was concerned, Hannah knew there would be none. She mentally cautioned herself. She reminded herself how she had doubted her abilities the day before. But Hannah had been listening carefully to Anton’s enunciation. She was certain his ‘yes, yes, yes’, even in Ukrainian, had been all lies.

Cleo Thirty

Friday, 9:45 AM Kyiv, Ukraine

The same car and driver met them on the sidewalk in front of the rooming house. Cleo practiced the name over and over as they began the drive. Chernihiv. Chernihiv.

There had been some confounding alternate pronunciation that Hannah and Anton discussed extensively. How could they be so concerned about sounds in speech when they were leaving the gorgeous sophistication of Kyiv and heading off into forests with tall thin pine trees that covered everything as far as Cleo could see?

And when would the conversation get around to specifics, the real reason for Hannah coming to this part of the world? Cleo had felt purposeful, in control and safe in the large, cosmopolitan atmosphere of Kyiv. But now, heading into never-ending countryside, she was ready for a schedule and something more than ‘dah, dah, dah.’

Anton seemed to be growing more excited and less understandable. Cleo could hardly distinguish his English from his Ukrainian as he spoke. Or had he already switched to speaking Russian? This back-and-forth with languages was so complicated. In Kyiv, many people had spoken English. It had softened the blow of a new culture for Cleo.

When they reached Chernihiv, driving finally out of interminable forest and into a lovely small city alongside a broad river, Cleo was ready to get on with her work. Carlos’ presence at the rooming house, though immediately annoying, at least gave her encouragement that her agency’s interest was still current. She was still following along for work.

And since Cleo had developed a taste for taking this job and running with it, she felt up to the task. Now, she needed to bring it home, figuratively and literally. Certainly, she owed Sandra a phone call, but she no longer felt a need for Sandra’s step-by-step approval. If she could find out what Hannah needed to do and help her get it done, then she could go home with success. That was Cleo’s self-appointed to-do list.

The car stopped. They had reached a small parking lot inside a large park-like enclosure. Ahead of them was a long one-story building with rough log siding and an over-hanging roof. Pathways reached out in several directions. Various groups of people seemed to be heading into the building. Anton spoke.

“We eat. Is lunchtime.”

“This is a restaurant?” asked Cleo.

“Ukrainian restaurant. Very old style. Food vkusno.”

“I take it that is a good thing,” said Cleo. “Is it a good thing, Hannah?”

Hannah seemed to be mouthing the same word Anton had spoken, a troubled expression on her face.

“Is wonderful,” said Anton. “Authentic.”

“You seem to have perfect timing to bring distractions, Anton. You probably know I won’t complain about Ukrainian food. But during lunch, you and I will discuss the work Hannah needs to accomplish.”

Dah, dah, dah.”

Cleo noticed Hannah’s look of abstraction. She no longer had the foggy look of jet-lag, but something was taking away her attention. Cleo thought she might not be able to count on Hannah for any help with her fact-finding conversation. Fine. She’d already proven she could accomplish that on her own.

Perched along the river, the restaurant sprawled under a forest of leaves. As they walked from the car, Cleo noticed the wood-smoke smell and wondered what typical Ukrainian meal would be offered. The menu looked promising, posted outside the restaurant on a large wooden scroll with helpful pictures. There was an enormous wood-burning fireplace in the middle of the dining room. Wall-sized windows had been opened onto a view of the river.

A charming and apparently historic setting, Cleo tried to concentrate on the adventure of exploring a new culture, but she longed for the tall buildings and busy sidewalks of Kyiv. That was much more like home, much more what she was used to. Here, everything seemed like elaborate camping: wood fences and buildings, trees everywhere, with hearty fireside conversation she did not understand. Cleo relied on Anton to order lunch.

She was surprised to think she might be tiring of this new experience. Perhaps Kyiv had been truly a place like no other, a place that made her feel immediately at ease. Now in a countryside city, even a classically charming one, she felt ready to get back to familiar things. The sooner, the better.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Twenty-nine

Friday, 6:00 AM Kyiv, Ukraine

It was as if she had never before been able to breathe into that part of her brain. Hannah had finally inhaled deep enough to pull oxygen into the bed of hurt behind her left ear. Did she even feel the same sensation she had always felt? She didn’t think so. Maybe even the tenderness she sensed now was just a memory of the pain that had always been there. She touched the spot, stretched her neck and smiled.

Good morning, Ukraine.

She knew it was early. She began her morning routine, including a trip to the bathroom. She fetched her dried and clean clothes. Hannah did not linger over the episode of the night before. She simply gathered her belongings, letting the mystery of the radiator reveal itself as her experience in Ukraine unfolded. She was confident the connection between all these events – her interrupted trip, reuniting with JSA, coming to Ukraine – would become apparent in time. That everything was connected, she did not doubt even a bit.

Her worry about Anton remained, but her curiosity won out. She decided to believe that, without pain, her other skills would get her through any likely challenge. And Anton seemed a necessary part of figuring out this puzzle that had just released her from decades of misery. She couldn’t leave before she put the pieces back together.

For now, Hannah simply accepted the comfort of the night before. Her presence in Ukraine was linked to her mother’s voice. As Young Cleo had said, this venture had become a personal one, but one that was bringing Hannah relief.

And a mystery to solve. The memory of her mother speaking in Polish, a language outside Hannah’s experience, should have been confusing. Instead, she felt at ease, even patient. Hannah simply needed to continue pulling on this thread of her life’s fabric.

She made her way to the dining room, hoping for hot tea, despite the promise of another day of heat. No one was around, not even the hostess. What was her name? Hannah could not recall. Yesterday afternoon and evening were a fuzz of confusion.

Hannah checked the sideboard for a tea kettle, a hot pot, a carafe, some container with a promise of brew. The room was clean to the point of precision, nothing out of place, no nick-knacks of cooking nor eating apparatus in view.

Hannah went in search of tea. Out the door, turning the opposite direction of the staircase, a heavy wooden double door beckoned. Hannah headed that direction.

As she pushed open the door and entered, she found a kitchen. It must be even earlier than she thought. Nothing seemed to be prepared for breakfast. No cooking smells, no kitchen clatter. In fact, no lights were on; the dim light that guided her came from the window above the sink. No one was present in the kitchen at all. Perhaps breakfast was not offered today?

It didn’t make sense, but Hannah was here for Earl Gray or Oolong, not to solve someone else’s customer service issue. She quickly found a kettle, located tea leaves and a strainer, boiled some water, pressed a cup into service and steeped her tea. More comfort.

Hannah tentatively touched the back of her ear. The motion was habit, difficult to let go, even though she had no sensation at all from the spot that had shown such constant pain. She sighed deep, cradled her cup.

The kitchen was just above street-level on the first floor, but did not face the street. One of the large-leafed trees, a chestnut, splayed its foliage across the open window. She stepped close to its odd three-framed opening.

A face looked back at her.

“Why, Carlos,” said Hannah. “I wondered when you would arrive.”

Cleo Twenty-nine

Friday, 7 AM Kyiv, Ukraine

Cleo woke still pondering the scene in the kitchen. That motion. This entire venture might be held together by that touch at the back of the ear. She thought it most likely was. Or maybe it was. Well, the touch was important. It had been such a novelty to see that exact movement from two middle-aged women at nearly the same time in the same building.

Cleo continued her morning routine, a push-and-pull of thoughts distracting her. Certainly, there was a clue here that Cleo should not ignore. But, did it come from the motion or from the rooming house itself? She didn’t want to make more of it than there was, but somehow, there was a personal connection between Olga, Hannah, and, through a locked door, to Anton.

Cleo, however, had been sent here by her employer and no one so far had called her home. In fact, everyone had been forceful in their insistence she follow Hannah. Even when Sandra had realized they would be heading off to Ukraine, she hadn’t been surprised. She’d almost been relieved, as if things had finally made some sense.

Why would JSA want her to pursue what seemed like a personal issue in Ukraine? Cleo might be getting used to surprising twists in her usually stable job, but that particular turn, she couldn’t figure out by herself. She needed Anton’s information.

She hadn’t called her boss since arriving in Kyiv, and wondered what time it was in Panamá City. Sandra hadn’t contacted her, either. She quickly checked her notebook for emails. Nothing from her boss. Cleo tapped out a generic email to Sandra, ‘doing-fine-call-when-you-can.’

What was happening to her appetite? As Cleo strapped on her baby blue heels and picked up her big-enough-for-anything handbag, she could not even imagine what delights might await her on the breakfast table.

Perhaps she was early. Cleo did not notice any cooking smells luring her down the stairs, as they had yesterday morning. She approached the dining room as two guests were leaving. A man and a woman, they spoke a few words to Cleo, shook their heads while pointing to the dining room. Cleo glanced through the glass doors, and understood their meaning. Not only was there no cooking aroma, there was no food.

One other guest was seated at a table, apparently a very patient sort. Nothing had been placed on the tables, nothing prepared, nothing to let the guests know when to expect their breakfast. But they did seem to be expecting something, and another made his way down the stairs, glanced through the glass doors, shrugged his shoulders, then left.

Since Cleo knew where the kitchen was, she made her way there.

Faint cooking smells encouraged her, but there was something missing. They weren’t the aromas from yesterday. She pushed the door open.

Hannah sat at the kitchen table, a cup of tea in her hands, and a smile on her face. A smile, wondered Cleo?

“American breakfast,” said Hannah. “Help yourself. You just missed Carlos. He ate more than his share, but I believe I made enough for you. And Carlos made some coffee.”

Cleo walked to the end of the table, still focused on Hannah’s smile. Had she mentioned Carlos? Then Cleo realized that none of the cooking smells she had expected were there. She looked at the spread on the table that apparently had brought out Hannah’s good mood.

“Scrambled eggs and toast?” said Cleo. “That’s all you have?”

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Twenty-eight

Thursday, 11:20 PM Kyiv, Ukraine

Hannah roused slightly. She had fallen asleep almost instantly. How long ago? The lighted clock indicated it was nearing midnight, but Hannah had not noticed the time before closing her eyes for sleep. She had performed her nighttime duties and sunk into restfulness, helped by the lullaby of her mother’s voice.

Out of habit, she reached to the nightstand, felt for her MP3 player.

Then she waited, assuming she would feel the sensitive spot, the one that made her reach for something to help her achieve a hum of distraction. But she felt no sensitivity. No pain. No need for anything but glorious, soft, soothing sleep.

She pulled her hand back under the cover, closed her eyes, and let the unfamiliar feeling of painless relaxation sweep over her.

Cleo Twenty-eight

Thursday, 11:25 PM Kyiv, Ukraine

What else was there to this place? Perhaps she had the passing thought of finding Anton’s room, perhaps she had an opportunity now, but Cleo decided that task was far beyond her skill set. She smiled at herself, and padded back to the staircase. What exactly did she think she would do? Open doors along this corridor when many people were settling down inside and Anton stood guard on the balcony?

Down the staircase, there was a full first floor, and she had only a basic idea of what the rooming house had to offer. Perhaps a room with some English-language magazines. Or at least, a Ukrainian magazine with fashion photos. Maybe more. She could follow her curiosity in that direction.

The first floor had been a well-lit area when Cleo had left the dining room, but now, most of the lights had been turned off. Still, there were some lit passageways. Cleo found a room that might have been a second smaller dining room, and then a full bathroom. Off the entrance was a sitting room, but no magazines.

Opposite the sitting room was a locked door.

A locked door? She had reached out and tried to open the door without pausing to think. In searching for a public room, there had been no reason not to investigate, even when a door was closed. Not that she had paused to think, it had been that spontaneous. Other doors had been closed, but not locked. She shrugged her shoulders. Why shouldn’t she open doors in a public area?

One door down, Cleo opened the unlocked door of might be a guest room. Guest rooms on the first floor? Unlocked? Why would the other have been locked?

Cleo looked toward the staircase, heard no approaching footsteps, not that she needed to hide her actions, this being an innocent exploration of a place to which she was permitted.

She returned to the locked door, knocked lightly, heard no response from the interior. She pulled her wallet from her pocket, slipped out a credit card, placed it against the latch, pushed and wiggled. The latch disengaged and Cleo opened the door. The immediate smell of Anton’s cigarettes wafted out. She hadn’t realized his had a particular odor until she smelled it out of context. Definitely Anton’s brand.

Cleo leaned into the door frame, saw a large room, an open wardrobe filled with a variety of clothes hanging, worn slippers near the head of a double-sized bed, several unmatched folded blankets at the foot. On the far side of the room was a table with a laptop computer, several paper notepads, a filled pencil holder and a modern land-line phone set. A row of thick binders with labels Cleo could not read lay along the head of the table. An electric kettle stood at the far end.

More than just Anton’s guest room. His home.

Without sound, Cleo stepped back and pulled the door closed.

Had she really just searched the room of a person of interest? Well, searched was perhaps not the correct term, since she hadn’t quite stepped into the room, but she had certainly pulled off her sneakiest prowl yet. Her first prowl, in fact. Person of interest? Where did that come from?

Her heart thudded. A slight panic settled-in now that she was walking away from the site of her break from reason. She had not even taken a moment before opening the door to think how ridiculous it would be if that worn-out credit card stunt really worked. It had worked on this older interior rooming house door, and that was all that mattered.

No. What really mattered was that Cleo was walking away from that escapade, safe. She needed some food.

The long empty corridor led her back toward the dining room, where she hoped the kitchen would be. As her pounding heart began to calm, Cleo felt a sense of satisfaction. She had found one piece of this puzzle. Certainly, there were many, many more, but this was enough for tonight. The long day began to assert itself and the edge of fatigue began to settle her mind.

One last piece of the cherry pastry would perfectly set off this wonderful day of discovery. The crisp crust with the sugary flakes covered tart cherry goo that screamed homemade. Cleo was sure there was one last piece somewhere nearby waiting for her. She headed down the corridor, retracing her steps, continuing past the staircase.

Out from the dining room walked one of the guests who had been sitting at the other table during the evening meal. He held a plate covered with a napkin and made an exaggerated sneaking motion. Cleo remembered he had spoken a language she could not distinguish. He spoke a word in that language now, held a finger over his lips in a shushing plea. He disappeared up the staircase.

Cleo was fairly certain there had been pastries on the plate he carried. She turned and entered the dining room.

Just a service light remained on, enough to see several clean small dishes next to a larger serving plate in the center of the table. Cleo noticed crumbs and a drizzle of cherry preserve on the platter, nothing else. The sneaking guest had taken all the pastries.

She paused outside the glass door to the dining room to get her bearings. Down the corridor, the darkness challenged her eyesight, but under a heavy wood paneled swinging door, there was the tiniest thread of light. Not from a well-lit kitchen, but possibly a street light showing through a window in a kitchen that had been closed for the night. Glad for the swinging door – it would make no sound and would not be locked – she hoped this room would contain just one more snack before sleep.

Cleo walked down the short passageway, quietly pushed the door open. She had found the kitchen.

The small bit of illumination came from the light of a clock on the opposite counter. On the work table in front of the door lay a plate with four cherry pastries. Cleo smelled cigarette smoke, heard the quiet crackle of new ash forming on the end of a cigarette. She stopped in the half-open door, and peered around.

On the far end of the table in a chair facing away from Cleo, sat Olga. Her right hand lay on the table with a lit cigarette between her first two fingers. Her feet were crossed at the ankles, her sling-backed high heels giving the smallest shine against the modest light.

But Cleo’s attention was drawn away from the shoes. Olga’s left hand was placed over the bone behind her left ear. In a slow-moving circle, Olga tenderly massaged. It was a motion Cleo recognized. Before now, though, it had always been from Hannah.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Twenty-seven

Thursday, 8:25 PM Kyiv, Ukraine

Hannah carried her bed clothes and accessories to the bathroom to shower and change. All she wanted to do was to close her eyes and rest. A persistent plea to leave, run, get away prickled at her sub-conscious, but she was too tired to respond. Even in her exhaustion, though, Hannah had steps to take before she could let herself sleep. She had neglected her routine that afternoon, and look what had resulted.

She washed, rinsed and wrung out her blouse and underwear in the sink and laid them on the exposed radiator pipes to dry. She paused, her hand resting on the damp blouse, feeling the warmth of the pipes through the fabric. It was a familiar, remembered movement.

No, she thought, the movement couldn’t be familiar. She had never washed clothes and placed them on a heated, heavy, irregular metal rack before. Maybe she had known of old-fashioned radiators in some theoretical sense. But she had never been to this part of the world, never bathed next to an ancient bathroom radiator. Her movement was not a memory, not part of any known routine.

She brushed her teeth. She laid out her toiletries, arranged her pajamas. Hannah concentrated on the mental list of things that must be done, and tried to ignore the thought that would not leave her. But her mind kept reverting to the drying clothes; a mystery was there.

Leave it alone, she thought. The night’s rest would restore some energy, give her a better perspective.

She turned on the shower water and marveled that the shower nozzle was so low she could reach to adjust it. Young Cleo would not appreciate this bathroom’s plumbing. Hannah smiled as she tested the water. Warm.

A mental voice began to sound through her defenses. Hannah stepped into the shower and sighed deeply to force the voice away, clear her mind. The spray was like a hum, a welcome distraction.

She would leave her clothing to dry overnight. Do not look toward the radiator. There was no need for reassurance that the items were still there. There was no need to touch them. Do not reaffirm that memory. Memory?

Hannah dried off, dressed in her pajamas and light robe and gathered her belongings, knowing her newly washed clothing stayed in place, calling to her. She shut her mind to the drying clothes. Not a memory, she told herself. She had never been here before, never seen a radiator so old.

She followed her normal routine in her room. Door closed, toiletries replaced in the pockets of her travel case, robe folded over the chair, music on the bedside table, slippers last to go. Lights turned out, she lay herself down to sleep, closed her eyes.

Don’t think of the drying clothes.

Then, from the back of her mind, from a distant life, she heard her mother’s voice break through with loving good-night words that were not spoken in English.

Polish, Hannah recognized. Why Polish? Her mother had spoken English, always. Why this memory? Memory? As in something she had once experienced? And why would she so easily identify Polish words? Hannah placed her hand over the tender spot in back of her left ear.

There was no hurt, no burning sensation.

She fell asleep cradled in the comfort of a goodnight wish spoken in her mother’s Polish words.

Cleo Twenty-seven

Thursday, 10:55 PM Kyiv, Ukraine

Cleo checked her notebook for the tracker’s signal. Nothing. Sergei was out of range or out of the shirt.

Cleo could not recall having been told details about how the tracker worked. Did it go inactive when the people did? Cleo didn’t know. It was fortunate she wouldn’t be leaving the apartment building this late at night. She did not know the language and did not feel she should be wandering an unfamiliar city in the middle of night. But she was not yet tired enough for sleep. She, unlike Hannah, was still here for work and felt the urgency of learning the purpose of Hannah’s visit.

That knowledge might hasten her return home. Was that what she wanted? Now that she had found the wonderland of Ukraine – the fashion style, the eagerness of the people to converse with her in English, the food, the unbelievable difference of simple living here – she was not so much in a hurry to get home. She felt very much enlivened, curious, and capable.

She shouldn’t let that new feeling go to waste. Sergei may not be available. Anton, however, was here in the building. At least, Cleo assumed he was here. Perhaps if she could find him, she could succeed in pulling out some direct answers, something more than the brilliant inference she had made that afternoon.

Cleo had come to her room after dinner, following the apparent flow of usual behavior.  She’d sat down, changed into her new slippers, and fiddled around a bit, but that was as far as she’d gotten. Her mind kept asking questions she couldn’t answer.

There must be a connection between this particular place and the reason for Hannah being in Kyiv. Otherwise, why would they have come here? Why would they be lingering? Perhaps rooming houses in Ukraine were as common as hotels in Panamá City, but why this place? It didn’t even seem to have a name. Since secrets were what she was after, couldn’t the boarding house itself have a few?

She had a sense that some guests had gathered in a sitting room downstairs, but that had been quite a while ago. She hadn’t been paying close attention, being in a cherry pastry comfort food haze, but she had followed a slow stream of guests returning to their rooms after the final hot tea that had ended the meal. Had everyone left the more public first floor rooms and headed for bed?

Cleo thought about her conversation with Anton that afternoon. There was nothing she had found out about the man. Cleo had developed her opinions, absolutely, and she believed they held weight, but what kind of factual knowledge of the man did she possess? Nearly nothing. And neither did Hannah, who had turned rather useless in this last day or so.

Finding out something more, even some small bit of information would be a worthy end to this day. An innocent interior prowl – it was a great idea, and would keep her safely inside her zone of familiars. Yes, that’s what this place was, a zone of familiars.

She stopped outside Hannah’s room, heard no sound and saw no light from under the door. Had Anton come up the stairs after dinner? She didn’t recall. The guests seemed to be housed on this second floor of the boarding house. If her memory was correct, she had last seen Anton heading out through a sitting room beside the dining room on the first floor.

Cleo continued down the hallway toward the staircase, padding silently in her slippers. She passed a door on the right behind which she could hear a muffled snore. Some quiet conversation came from the next room as she passed. A large window at the end of the corridor pulled her attention. Did she see a light? Some movement?

As she got closer, Cleo realized she was looking at a small outdoor balcony. She had seen similar ones from the street on her walk that afternoon. They hung off the upper floors of the apartments, looking to Cleo as if they might peel off the sides of the buildings and slide onto the sidewalks below. They had no support and looked like architectural after-thoughts.

It made sense there would be balconies in this residence also. Cleo stepped closer, hesitating. The hallway past the staircase was dark. Cleo slowed. The movement she had noticed was more pronounced as she got closer. Someone was on the balcony.

 What she had thought was a window was actually a door standing slightly ajar, opening on to the balcony. Windows formed the outside walls, and she could see light from the street and the nearby buildings. One step closer, then she stopped.

Anton’s back came into view. Cleo recognized his haircut, the hunch of his shoulders, even the movement. Should she approach? Something about his posture seemed uninviting, but that might be just the general impression of this rumpled, over-dressed man. Cleo tapped on the open door and stepped into the breach.

At least, that’s immediately how it felt to her. She was not fully onto the balcony, but felt that adding her weight to the structure would tip the precarious balance. Her knees felt slightly weakened, and she swayed just a bit, leaving her with a slightly more intoxicated feeling than had the vodka.

“Anton?” she said, but he had already heard her knock.

He glanced lazily over his right shoulder, grunted a long syllable, then turned back. Cleo followed his gaze, and before she could contain it, a sigh of surprise rose up from her belly.

In front of them, a light-filled city lay, sparkling through the chestnut leaves that brushed the windows of the balcony. A ring of soft lights outlined the multiple domes of the cathedrals they had toured that afternoon. Cleo even thought she could see a thread-like shine of the river with that name she could not pronounce.

Anton gestured with his cigarette hand, a regal motion filled with such pride that it seemed unnecessary when he added words. “Our city. Beautiful, no?”

“Magnificent,” she said.

The air flowing in from the open windows was as heavy as in daytime, but cooler and soothing. The very slight breeze helped the chestnut leaves rub against the glass walls, adding a rhythm of sway to the shimmer of the night lights.

Cleo heard Anton take a long in-breath, an even longer exhale. He tapped the cigarette butt against a can on the window sill, let it fall, slid a new cigarette from a pack in the pocket of his coat. He offered it to Cleo without turning fully around.

“No, thank you,” she said softly, so she didn’t distract the lights from shining. He lit the cigarette, inhaled. Cleo could feel a sense of peacefulness from the balcony, admired the view a last time. “Enjoy your evening, Anton. Good night.”

He acknowledged her with a slight lift of his chin. Cleo closed the glass door as she turned back to the corridor. Such beauty in that view. So much peace. Who would want to hurry such a relaxing moment? Hopefully not Anton.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Twenty-six

Thursday 6:40 PM Kyiv, Ukraine

What was Cleo saying? Her words seemed to come from far away, in a different language, in an unfamiliar voice.

Now, Cleo was pulling on her arm, insisting on food, looking cheerful in the midst of Hannah’s disconnected thoughts. She could hardly understand what the young woman was saying to her and only wanted to ask her to slow down or go away or simply stop.

If only Hannah could find the words. Words?

Cleo Twenty-six

Thursday 6:45 PM Kyiv, Ukraine

Anton joined them for dinner, adding several courses to the meal by insisting on having a smoke between each dish. Sergei, the running man, was not there, and neither Anton nor Cleo mentioned him. Their host, Olga, brought steaming dish after dish to the table. Dumplings, riced meatballs, beet salad. There was a soup that Anton said was ‘green borscht’ with sorrel and sour cream. Cleo began helping herself.

Four guests sat at the opposite side of the room. They had nodded at each other as they settled in. Cleo recognized their speech as something that was neither Ukrainian nor English, but that was as far as Cleo could go in evaluating the language. Well, she thought, it wasn’t Spanish, either. She attempted a conversation with Anton, or more accurately, a search for information.

“Anton,” said Cleo, “are we leaving tomorrow?”

“Maybe, no.”

“How long will we be staying?”

Ne znayu. I don’t know.”

His answers came in a dreamy monotone as he reached for one plate then another. The appeal of food, Cleo understood.

“Am I interrupting your dinner?”

He looked up and smiled.

Dah. Dah. Verenyki. Very good. Maybe we leave tomorrow.”

Dinner took a surprisingly long time, with two separate servings of tea. Guests seemed to linger over a particularly medicinal brew that had bark floating in the cup.

Olga had promised a cherry pastry that Cleo did not want to miss. She looked at Hannah’s haggard demeanor and decided to postpone their heart-to-heart. She couldn’t imagine any good would come from a discussion in Hannah’s state of apparent exhaustion. Jet lag really did a number on some people. Hannah had eaten a careful selection of dishes, but remained silent. She excused herself before dinner was completely over.

As Cleo waited for the desert, two realizations hit her at once.

The first was that, though she was here for her job, she had hardly thought about her boss or her agency the entire day. She had simply done what she needed to do, and she had done it well. This recognition gave her a warm feeling of self-congratulation. She could do this street work. In fact, right now, she felt like she could anything, anything at all. The thought that no one, not even Carlos, was here to commend her meant nothing to Cleo. It was enough that she could congratulate herself.

The second was that she was still hungry.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Twenty-five

Thursday, 6:25 PM Kyiv, Ukraine

   Hannah woke to a loud knock from her door.

   At least she thought the knock might be at her door. Hannah tried to swing her legs over the side of the bed to rise, but her will to move did not make it as far as her muscles. She struggled to sit, fell back. She thought she should respond to the knock, but could not think of what to say. Or how to say it. Or what language to use. Language?

   Was the knocking coming from her door, or another? Or perhaps there was no knocking at all.

   Suddenly, Young Cleo was at the side of Hannah’s bed, hollering into Hannah’s ear.

   “Stop yelling,” Hannah said.

   “What was that?” asked Cleo. “Wake up, Hannah. Are you dreaming? Hannah, are you alright? You have such precise speech, even in sleep, I’d expect you to enunciate.”

   “Stop yelling.”

   “I can’t understand you, Hannah. Are you speaking Ukrainian? Never mind. Sorry to wake you. I know I barged in, but I had to talk with you before dinner.”

   “You are yelling. It is not necessary.”

   “What? Just listen a moment. Maybe your mouth will catch up to your thoughts. Just give it a moment and listen. Anton wants you here for some other reason than he’s let on. It’s not your work that he wants. At least, I don’t believe it is. Can you think of anything he might want from you? Or some reason he needs you here? Something private, maybe?”

   Hannah managed to push herself up into a sitting position, then stood. Why couldn’t the young woman comprehend her? Why was she being so discourteous? Hannah slowly looked up at Cleo’s waistline, only two feet away, so close that the comparison between them – tall and short – was too obvious. Hannah looked up and up and up, all the way to Young Cleo’s face. She seemed to be much taller than the last time Hannah had looked at her.

   “What happened to you? Why are you so far up?”

Hannah seemed to be slowly, very slowly, pulling back from the blur of sleep.

   “English. Good for you,” said Cleo. “It’s the shoes. Sorry about the height, but I couldn’t resist. Nice color, right?”

Cleo struck a ridiculous pose, one foot forward, ankle turned one way, then the other. Why was she talking about shoes?

“No shoes.”

“Hannah, listen. Think about what else might interest Anton, other than your work. There must be something.”

   “No. There is nothing.”

Hannah reached to the burning spot, tucked her chin and faced away from Young Cleo.

Cleo Twenty-five

Thursday, 6:30 PM Kyiv, Ukraine

   Cleo had noticed that movement from Hannah before. Protective, hiding. The chin tuck, and then the hand motion. What did it mean? Hannah, like Anton, was talking in one direction and meaning another.

   “Maybe we should sit.”

Cleo pulled up a nearby chair and sat, motioning Hannah to do the same. Hannah plopped back on the bed. At least her speech was settling down into English. What had she been speaking when she first woke? Maybe it hadn’t been just mumbles from the verge of sleep. Another language?

   “Why are you here?” asked Hannah.

   “Again, I’m sorry. I startled you. But you and I need to get some things straight. Have you asked Anton why you are here?”

   “Yes.”

   “Did he give you an answer?”

   “No.”

   “Well, that’s not surprising. Did you request the tour this morning? Because it seems to me that tour was just a cover for something else. Do you know what?”

   “You are talking so fast.”

   Cleo saw Hannah raise her hand to her neck again. She seemed to wince at Cleo’s words, or maybe her presence in the room. But Hannah would have to put aside her discomfort so they could figure out why they were in Ukraine. Cleo tried again.

   “Think, Hannah. Did you notice what was going on at that university? You must know it wasn’t really a university. A lab, maybe.”

   “Notice what?” Hannah asked in a slow, distracted voice.

   “Well, for example, the woman in the bathroom. It was almost like she was a nurse evaluating you. Or testing you. Or taking samples. Did you notice anything?”

   “Nothing,” said Hannah. “There was nothing.”        

   “You are being so passive I hardly recognize you. Maybe you are still just waking up.”

   Hannah surprised Cleo by a sudden distracted look, then she slowly tilted her head one way then the other, an odd movement for such a purposeful woman. Hannah then stopped all motion and clamped her eyes shut.

“I should sit,” she said.

   Cleo took a deep breath and considered her companion.

“You’re already sitting, Hannah. I think I’m pushing your jet lag. After dinner, though, you and I need to talk. I think right now you need some nourishment, and we both know the food this country offers is the best. Come on. Up you go.”

   Hannah resisted Cleo’s hand at her elbow. She swayed, then steadied as Cleo offered support.

   “I don’t need your help,” said Hannah.

   Cleo dropped her hand, but stayed near. She looked quizzically at Hannah, wondering about this odd and brilliant woman, whose every action before had seemed so deliberate.

   “Are you using that accent on purpose?” asked Cleo.

   “Don’t be ridiculous,” said Hannah, again in that accent Cleo could not identify.          

An aroma from the dining room spoke Cleo’s name. Hollered for attention. Ukrainian food for dinner, this realization called for action.

   “Come on. Let’s go,” she said. Cleo smiled at the older woman, who grumbled a word or two, but ones Cleo could not understand. “I may not know that many languages, but I can interpret a growl when I hear it.”

   A second stream of sounds came from Hannah.

   “Alright. Enough with the word play. Let’s go eat,” said Cleo.

She reached again for Hannah’s arm, patted it as she hooked her own around Hannah’s. She started down the corridor, holding onto Hannah, guiding her, heading them both toward the delectable smells. She may not be able to interpret the speech in this country, but the food, Cleo understood quite well.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Twenty-four

Thursday, 5:40 PM Kyiv, Ukraine    

She had walked ahead of Anton into the rooming house, and then kept going. She hadn’t answered his question, nor explained anything, but it had not been pay-back for his lack of answers. She had been lost in the burning sensation of his touch and the mystery of what he knew.

Hannah returned to her room, hoping to settle herself. Anton knew something personal about her, something that only she in the entire world could know, did know. That realization slammed into her head, defying reason. He could not know what he spoke of. Her mind refused to function in such a flurry of impossibles.

And then her parents. Why had her mind collapsed, like a deflated bubble, at the memory of her parents? Of course, she thought of them every so often. But she did not have complicated feelings about her parents. They were simply good people from long ago.

Hannah had sought the quiet of her room, thinking she would sort all this out. But as soon as she sat on the bed, a physical numbness claimed her, and she lay down. The grip of an instant deep sleep, the kind that takes ahold and squeezes reason from any sane person, covered her like a heavy blanket.

Instead of feeling refreshed, when she woke, Hannah felt as if all her edges blurred and her thoughts were trying to find their way out of a deep well full of sand.

Worse, the bone behind her ear still burned. She closed her eyes and allowed more sleep to envelope her.

Cleo Twenty-four

Thursday, 5:45 PM Kyiv, Ukraine       

   “Anton. I adore everything about Kyiv and would love to keep drinking,” said Cleo. “But dinner calls, and you have not answered my question. Why are we here?”

   Anton tapped his spent cigarette against the ash tray with more strength than the two remaining inches required. It was the first time Cleo had seen Anton do anything with intensity.

“Is work thing. You know JSA. Is simple work.”

The welcome mat had been withdrawn. Anton’s response was defensive wordplay. Whatever the real reason for traveling to this wonderful country, at least now Cleo knew it was not anything Anton was offering for an answer. It wasn’t simple work.

   Cleo pulled from her wallet an unknown quantity of the Ukrainian currency she had exchanged at the airport, but was it waved away by Anton. She stood, thanked the men for the vodka and their company, and left the patio café. If drinking was the price of learning any more information, she would have to satisfy her appetite for dinner first. Another shot and she might not care what information came her way.

She might have to find another way to learn the reason for Hannah’s visit. Or leave it to someone else. If she had a team of JSA helpers, it might be an easier task. But, she had just herself. She paused in her walk. Maybe just herself was enough.

   Dinner called to Cleo. She started the trek up the hill to the apartment house. If she needed it, the tracker would follow Sergei, as long as he stayed close and kept his shirt on.

   Nothing Anton had said seemed truthful. Hannah was needed for something important, otherwise JSA wouldn’t have put in the effort. But what that important thing was, Cleo had no clue.

   She couldn’t reliably know a lie, like Hannah, but she saw Anton’s reluctance with his answers. Hannah had decided that they were not in any danger, but Cleo was beginning to trust her own judgments also. Anton did not appear to be a dangerous man. But why this trip? What was their purpose for being here?

A work assignment, Anton had said. But work always had expectations, a time table, agreed-upon goals. This venture had none of that. If it wasn’t work-related for Anton, then what was it?

   Anton didn’t seem desperate. He seemed guarded. If Anton desperately needed Hannah, Cleo felt this visit would be moving along at a different pace, a much faster pace. But they had just finished a pleasant shopping trip and gone on a day-long tour. And Cleo had sat at a table sharing drinks with Anton and someone posing as his friend. Their exchange had been calculated, perhaps intense, but not rushed.

   Still, Anton needed Hannah’s skills for something, and that meant that the ball was in their court, Cleo’s and Hannah’s. Theirs was the position of strength. Cleo stopped for a moment and relished the thought of being on Hannah’s side. Yes, she enjoyed that thought. In fact, she had been enjoying every moment of everything since she had woken up in this glorious country earlier that morning.

   Cleo could see the apartment building’s street. She was ready for dinner, and satisfied with her day’s enterprise. Had she even thought once to call Sandra for advice or permission? She didn’t think so. Maybe she should attempt a call in the morning, just to check in.

But at the moment, the only thing on her mind – besides dinner – as she rounded the corner to her home-away-from-home was the location of the nearest salon. If there was one thing she wanted to take home from Ukraine, it was that vibrant red hair color she had seen on several of the young women. Almost metallic. Panamá would love it.

   Her legs strained with the climb of the last half-block of hillside. She gave her head a quick shake. The vodka had been more ice than cold, but her feeling about this country had definitely warmed.

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.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Twenty-two

Thursday, 5 PM Kyiv, Ukraine

They arrived back at the apartment building, where the driver pulled onto the sidewalk to find a place to let off his passengers. Anton got out, and busied himself with opening doors and gathering packages. Then he leaned toward the buzzer for the apartment building, finger stretched for the push.

The building’s door flew open, and a man hurried out. Anton blasted the rudeness with a few words that Hannah did not understand. Surgic, or simply Ukrainian swear words she hadn’t yet encountered?

But was there really any skill left in her? Hannah’s mind filled with all the things she might have guessed wrong about this trip. Her judgement – misjudgment? – about Anton left her with grave concern. Could she trust her assessment that Anton was not violent? Her stomach continued its slow churn. She studied his movements with a new concentration, wondering if her ability had failed her. Or worse, wondering if Anton possessed a quality of menace she could not evaluate.

She had to get away. And Young Cleo? What responsibility did she have for the girl? She had never asked for Cleo to follow along.

   They gathered on the sidewalk as the sedan left the curb. Anton stepped aside for Hannah and Cleo, heaving four of Cleo’s bags into his right arm as he held the door open with his left. Once inside, Cleo grabbed all her treasures and nearly skipped up the steps to the rooms on the next floor. Had Hannah brought her into a dangerous situation? Should that even concern her?

Hannah struggled to keep the sound of panic from her voice, because some feral instinct was telling her to flee. She looked at Anton and tried once more.

   “Anton, what purpose do I have here? I know my reasons for coming, but why do you need me here?”

   Anton pursed his lips, nodded his head, stepped forward. With an outstretched finger, just as he had reached for the door buzzer, he tapped the bony back of Hannah’s left ear.

   “You tell me about this, dah?”

Cleo Twenty-two

Thursday, 5:05 PM Kyiv, Ukraine

   The driver had pulled up onto the sidewalk to let them off at the apartment building. Right up out of the street onto the sidewalk, near the entrance. What a wonderful use of space, and so convenient. Cleo began her exit.

   The building’s door burst open and a man vaulted from the interior of the stairwell. Anton grabbed the open door to keep it from closing. The two had nearly collided, but without the off-handed nature of a mistaken step. Cleo couldn’t be certain. Had their hands exchanged something small? She glanced at the other man’s face. He was not one of the guests from that morning’s breakfast.

   She had intended to place the tracking device with the driver. A simple reach and that task would be done. Easy. But there was something about Anton’s quick movement and the timing of the man’s exit from the building that seemed orchestrated. Why?

   Think fast, Cleo, she told herself. One tracking device for two curiosities. Either way, the power cell would last for only 24 hours. Who did she want to keep track of?

   She chose the running man, quickly exited the sedan with a bag in her hand, turning and grazing his shirtsleeve cuff with her hand. It wasn’t the best place for long-term surveillance – Cleo figured a wallet or briefcase would have been better – but the activated tracker stuck instantly. John Smith had been right when he said using this device took no training at all. Cleo had now placed two trackers successfully without ever having practiced: one with Hannah herself, and now the second with this new character.

   She hauled her bags with her left hand, stepped through the apartment building’s door held open by Anton, added the bags he carried to her right hand and raced up the steps. Cleo had to get dressed for the evening. She felt like celebrating. Vodka? Why not?

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Twenty-one

Thursday, 10:30 AM Kyiv, Ukraine

   Young Cleo insisted on a shopping trip. She had complained before the flight about how ill-prepared she was for this forced excursion. Anton had arranged for a Kyiv city tour in a private car with the driver pointing out notable sights. But to appease the young woman, the car would pick up the three of them on the Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kyiv’s central area. They would walk down the hill to the shopping streets from their boarding house and then to the Maidan, allowing Cleo to supply herself along the way.

   “A tour,” said Hannah to Anton, in rapid English, hoping the out-of-place words would irritate the man. “As if we were simply here for the pleasure of a visit.”

   “Driver speak Ukrainian. Language lesson or tour, is same,” said Anton.

   “Our young friend, Cleo, may not appreciate the lesson as much as I.”

   Cleo joined the other two at the door of the residence wearing Mendota’s clothes. She looked far more cheerful than she should have.

   “I’m just here for the shoes,” said Cleo. “Oh my god, the four-inch heels. And those skirts with the triple pleats. Get me to a few nice stores and everything will be good again.”

   Anton opened the door into the stairwell. It had given off the feeling of dirt and grit the night before, but Hannah had been too tired to question it. Now, the surprising unclean state of the stairs added to the uneasiness of her stomach. How could such a well-kept rooming house lead off of this filthy staircase?

They were only six steps up from the sidewalk. Hannah covered the distance without taking a breath. They reached the sidewalk and began their walk.

   “Is short distance,” said Anton.

   “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” said Cleo in a delighted gasp, pointing at a woman passing by on the opposite sidewalk. “Look at that enormous hand bag. I must have one.”

They passed through a street filled with restaurants and bars, all now closed. That street entered onto a retail avenue supplied with high-value necessities. Hannah noticed that the street was quite long, and that Cleo’s smile had just broadened.

“How many shops must we visit?” asked Hannah.

Anton shrugged his shoulders, tapped out a cigarette and found a seat on a nearby bench.

   Shoe store after clothes store after glitzy shop lay in wait. Hannah’s stomach settled somewhat, but a general uneasiness, a new sensation, had replaced the after-effects of the salo.

She followed Cleo into the first store, thinking that she would further her Ukrainian language. She hadn’t counted on the international language of fashion, however. Cleo seemed fluent. When her pantomime and pointing failed Cleo, the store clerks had been delighted to practice their English.

   Hannah left Cleo to her vices, walked the length of the street, then retreated to join Anton in his outdoor vigil, grumbling at the fact that the clerks’ English had been better than her Ukrainian.

   “You said you needed me only for one morning,” said Hannah.

   “Dah.”

   “May I ask what help I will be offering? And when?”

   “Is simple matter.”

   “For which I must remain here five days?”

   “Maybe not here, no.”

   “Will we at least see St. Sofia’s? I am ready to leave now if we don’t.”

   “Dah, dah, dah. We see Sofia.”

   “Anton. I have come to your country, agreed to help. But I need specifics. What is it you want me to do?”

   “Advise. Consult. Language work,” Anton said. He stood, pointed to a black sedan as Cleo walked out of the last store on the block with three new bags. “But not now. Driver here. First, we eat. Then, we see Kyiv.”

   She questioned the need for yet another meal, but realized it was already noontime. Lunch offered only difficulties. Hannah could not rid herself of the constant sour cream, the mayonnaise in the salads, the salt bowls on each table that had an unknowable trace of other people’s fingers dipped into each one. No one could assure her the mushrooms had been certified. And all of it made Hannah more annoyed than it should have.

Learn the Ukrainian language, help Anton with a language issue, go home. It should be simple, not aggravating.

After they ate, things improved slightly. The tour of Kyiv promised to be not just a language lesson, but a heart-rending portrayal of history from today to times beyond imagination. The sights they drove by tugged at Hannah’s mind. There was so much to explore.

   “Vydubychi Monastery,” Anton announced at one stop.

   The driver gave a long-winded history that seemed to Hannah a recited epic poem. Then she, Cleo and Anton stepped out, leaving the car idling at the curb. Anton urged them to walk up the long path to the entrance. As he explained to Cleo in one-word English sentences something about the monastery, Hannah noticed a plaque outside the door, and read the history in Ukrainian.

   She stepped into the sanctuary as the choir’s voices began chanting in unison. Hannah stood mesmerized by the practicing choir. She had no need to understand the words, as voices blended into sounds that spoke, but not through language. Hannah felt herself calm. Spoken communication without language? It was a new sensation, almost a vocal hum.

   By the time she stepped up to the massive front doors of Saint Sofia’s Cathedral, Hannah began to feel grateful for this unexpected turn in her vacation plans. She had been correct this morning when she had decided to stay. Somehow, she felt it was important to experience this country, whose complex languages were a perfect fit for her skills. And Anton had become the genial host.

   Even the stop at the historic university offered a stunning visit. The name seemed a tangled mix of a man’s name and the English word for institute. Hannah stood at the entrance to the university, matching her new sounds to the Cyrillic letters. It was a daunting puzzle, or it should have been. The letters had a familiar look, even placed together as they were in long paragraphs. But, even in many western countries, foreign alphabets appear and remind others of the power of writing.

Hannah’s fatigue returned after she stepped through the odd metal detector of the university library. Each of them had been screened with an electronic scanner that left an almost stinging sensation. Hannah understood close scrutiny after Ukraine’s most recent turmoil, and she was glad to see such an intimate view of this city, a surprising gift from Anton.

   By the end of the tour, though, sitting in the black sedan, Hannah’s suspicions resurfaced. A full day in Ukraine, and she still had no idea what she had promised to do for this man. She felt he was hiding something, but Hannah could not know what it was if he did not put it into words. The car began to feel confining, and Hannah’s desire to leave returned. She looked to the three companions – Anton, the driver and Young Cleo. She hardly knew them at all. Certainly, she did not owe them a longer stay for an ill-defined commitment. Her eyes rested on Young Cleo, looking content in the front seat. Even she was here for a reason Hannah could not fathom.

   “All this is lovely,” Hannah said to Anton, sitting next to her. “The history is riveting. I have had a day full of hearing Ukrainian language all around. But you still have told me nothing about my responsibility here.”

   “Or Miss Cleo,” said Anton.

   Hannah glanced to Cleo, counting her bags and trying on shoes.

   “I’ve lost interest in Young Cleo.”

   Hannah turned back to face Anton and found him looking with such intensity into her face that Hannah felt stunned. The silence from Anton confounded her. Voices, sounds, she could always interpret. But this silent, concentrated look from Anton rocked Hannah with doubt. She sat, tucked into the corner of an unfamiliar sedan in a country she did not know, whose complex language she was just beginning to understand.

What had she misjudged? She had gotten something terribly wrong about this entire situation. Violence, she could detect. Threats and falsehoods, she could detect. What danger was left? Evil? Shivers stabbed into her throat and heat rose into her temple.

Cleo Twenty-one

Thursday, 4:35 PM Kyiv, Ukraine

   The soup at lunch, Borscht, red from the luscious beets, with beef fat and sour cream floating on top and chunks of beef and potatoes and cabbage and carrots had been such a revelation that Cleo had been sent into a stupor of bliss. But not so much of a stupor that she disregarded the unspoken contact between Anton and the driver. Neither had said anything revealing. But she could tell they knew each other well. And Cleo was certain they were trying to hide it.

   Perhaps it had been a stroke of luck that Cleo had taken the seat in the front of the sedan, where this interaction was likely hidden from Hannah. Cleo believed the entire day had been planned around that inexplicable visit to the “university”.

For goodness sake, no one would believe that was really a place for academic study. It was a laboratory. Hannah must have noticed that, at least. They had to walk through a metal detector and some other scanner. They’d been patted down. She had tried to catch Hannah’s attention several times, but her companion had an uncharacteristic lack of focus. She’d stood in front of the tall nameplate for the building for a long time, staring at those unreadable Cyrillic letters.

   Inside, they passed through some areas with books – quite a lot, in fact, with rows of binders, but the only truly important part of that stop had been to use the restroom facilities. Cleo and Hannah had been escorted up two short staircases and around three corners to a ladies’ restroom. It didn’t stand to reason that women would need to trek such a distance in search of facilities. And these facilities may have been posing as a normal restroom, but they were not what Cleo expected.

An older woman, dressed in a thick white lab-coat, support hose and sturdy white shoes with squared heels, stood guard by the restroom and briefly scanned Cleo herself, then settled on Hannah. She had reacted to Hannah’s spare spoken Ukrainian with a start, and her razor-sharp eyes had registered great interest, maybe even alarm.

As Cleo and Hannah stood at the wash basins, the woman approached, and had stationed herself beside Hannah, as if the woman assumed Hannah had no idea how to wash her hands. The attendant leaned close to Hannah, almost posing her, pressing her hands into an unusual wet cloth and saving the cloth afterwards, placing it aside on the counter top. Cleo was certain the woman had also saved the towel Hannah had used to dry her hands.

   Maybe she was reading more into it than necessary, but no one had handed Cleo a special cloth, and she had had to place her used towel into a laundry basket all by herself. Whatever the interaction would reveal, Cleo was enormously satisfied that she had noticed not only the peculiar university, but Anton and the driver’s complicit behavior.

The day had been full of distractions. The beauty of the history of this city had been presented to them in monument after building after historic site. Cleo knew it was all a game of smoke and mirrors, though, and that knowledge filled her with pride. That sensation, the pride in her ability, was only slightly, very slightly, more satisfying than her stomach filled with glorious Ukrainian food.

   Cleo stretched out her feet. She admired the new pale lavender leather sling-backs with the four-inch heels. Then she made sure the tracking device she had hidden in her hand was activated.