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?”


   “Did he give you an answer?”


   “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.


   “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.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Twenty

Thursday, 7:10 AM Kyiv, Ukraine

Hannah dressed, searched for a bathroom, girded herself with her morning routine, and found the dining room on the first floor down a narrow hall through an open door. Anton sat at one end of a square wooden table. The polish of the wood shone dark through the pattern of the white lace tablecloth. A long wall unit matched the table, and contained a display of dishes inside glass doors and many, many sets of tea servings.

Hannah nodded to Anton and gingerly took the seat next to him. Anton grumbled a greeting that Hannah did not clearly hear. She acknowledged him with her own monosyllable. He lit a cigarette, and Hannah moved to the opposite end of the table, near a window that offered the same heavy air as the window in the bedroom.

 On each of the dining room’s four tables sat diagonal rows of what looked like elongated sugar packets but bore the imprint of a coffee cup. Hannah picked one up, tore it open and let the contents fall into a cup near her. The strong, wake-up aroma of coffee burst out. Wasn’t Ukraine a tea-drinking country? She scanned the table, but there was no tea.

Dobre utra.” Good morning. The woman from the night before greeted Hannah in perfunctory Ukrainian. Hannah answered with the same. “Haryacha voda?” Hot water?

Hannah thanked her and lifted her cup for the electric pot the woman held, then stirred the overbearing contents into a muddy brew.

Hannah studied the room, trying to ignore the smoke gathering around Anton. How long could she hold back the ache behind her sinuses? The additional discomfort drew her attention to her stiff neck, aching shoulder and swollen ankles – leftovers from the long flight. In the dining room, the list went on: cigarette smoke, the heaviness of the air, the food smell that seemed familiar but that she couldn’t name, the coffee that replaced her usual tea. She fought an uneasy feeling.

Horizontal rows of utensils at the end of each table supplied four diners each. Salt crystals sat in a small saucer, four small cups with spoons resting inside set at a diagonal on each side of the table – three on her side, since she had one in her hand filled with coffee. Exactly four paper napkins lay arranged in a fan in the middle for a table of four. Exactly enough, placed in exact order.

Hannah recognized everything that the woman brought, but it was all so different. Soup for breakfast, pickles and beet salad, something that looked like light-colored meatballs and something else with an enormous quantity of mayonnaise, numerous small plates. And the smoke. It had been years since she had to tolerate cigarettes.

Even the host’s voice held a different quality. It was shielded, her words sheltered from meaning. Hannah wondered how – or if – her language abilities would translate into Ukrainian.

Anton lifted his chin to Hannah then gestured to the table, offering a small plate with a round portion of wobbling off-white substance.

Salo,” he said.

In his eyes she could see a smile or a challenge, Hannah couldn’t tell, only that the word itself called to her and she wanted to understand. She felt so fatigued.

Salo?” she asked.

“Is custom. You eat.”

She watched him take a knife to the salo, cut a thick slice, then spread it onto a piece of bread. As he chewed, his lips glistened.

Hannah picked up her knife, reached for the plate. The salo held together better than room-temperature butter, so she pressed harder until it split away in a wobble that unsettled her stomach.

Anton grunted an encouraging Ukrainian consonant. Hannah spread the fatty substance onto a piece of bread, took a small bite and chewed. The bread was slightly dry, so the salo gave a bit of lubrication. Hannah swallowed. Anton tilted up his chin.

Urah. Urah. Now you belong.”

“Solid bacon fat does that?”

Her stomach lurched as if coming out of an air pocket on the plane.

Anton grumbled a crowd of Cyrillic letters. Not Ukrainian, Hannah’s ears told her, not quite. She rose from her seat, brought her coffee cup with her and faced Anton.

“That’s the second language, Surgic. I don’t know if I can wait around for the promised third,” she said, then left the dining room as rapidly as she could, answering the plea of her stomach.

Cleo Twenty

Thursday, 8:05 AM Kyiv, Ukraine

Cleo woke with a gut-emptying feeling that told her she did not know where she was.

The slim long bed, the thin sheets undone from her sleep roll-overs, the heavy blanket that had fallen off the foot of the bed: all unfamiliar. But so comfortable. She recalled she had already let herself slip back into sleep earlier, and felt that had probably been some time ago. She had slept deeply. Cleo should really wake up this time.

As she began to put together the past day or two, she felt a bemused relief to at least be off the tiny plane. This was what private air companies offered? She would never complain about business class again.

What an ordeal the long overnight flight, the changing of planes and the continued journey had been. She hadn’t thought to confirm with Anton what the seats would be like. She had thought, being a private carrier, the comfort would be first class. The lurching of the plane had prevented her from asking even one of the many questions that came to mind. Her headache had clenched on tight and stayed with her the entire journey.

She breathed in the heavy air. Breathed again. No headache. No headache? As she continued to wake, Cleo realized that she had slept well, felt rested. She stretched her neck, tilted her head. Still no pain.

What was that luscious aroma? A cooking smell, it pushed her awakening state.

“Breakfast,” she said, pulling out a sarong from her day bag, collecting yesterday’s clothes, then heading to the restroom she had used the night before.

Cleo hurried through her bathroom routine and dressed, lured by the tempting aroma that lingered in the hall. She had not a shred of the headache that screamed at her during the flight. She felt not a bit of the jet-lag she had expected. She wasn’t even certain she felt any leftover muscle cramping from the tight seats on the plane. What had happened? Never mind all that, she just wanted some food.

Following her nose, she tapped down the stairs, through the corridor, past the heavy wood doors and into a dining room. Anton sat at the table, smoking. A coffee cup and two small plates lay in front of him.

“What is that wonderful smell? I am hungrier than I’ve been in a month. Two. Maybe three.”


“Yes, please. What else is there?”

Anton motioned to the table, with bread, vegetable salad, something with rice, hot soup and sour cream set out. The small plate of salo, he pushed over to Cleo. She lifted the plate to her nose, sniffed.

“Wonderful,” she said.

The hostess, an unsmiling middle-aged woman she vaguely remembered from the night before, entered carrying a glass tea carafe. Bright green leaves and red berries floated in the steaming liquid. Cleo’s glance was drawn downward to the woman’s shoes, three-inch heels perilously thin, impossibly stylish next to her housewife’s duster.

“Love the shoes,” said Cleo, plastering a spread of salo onto a piece of bread, then tasting. “Oh my god this is good.”

The woman poured tea into a cup in front of Cleo.

“What on earth is this?” asked Cleo dipping her face near to the cup to breathe in the steam. “Fabulous. I think I’ll have to have some coffee, also, if that’s okay. Anton, what is the tea?”

Cleo heard his mumbled response, but didn’t understand any part of it.

“Can I eat whatever I want?” she asked, motioning to the table’s offerings.

Dah, dah, dah,” he said.

Cleo noticed the slight smile that changed the woman’s composure from dour to radiant. After helping herself to the vegetable salad, rice balls, and chicken soup, Cleo was smiling, too.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Nineteen

Thursday, 7 AM Kyiv, Ukraine

Hot, thick air smelling of over-due chestnut blooms and broad fur-bottomed leaves greeted Hannah. The morning, almost motionless and already stifling, reminded her of Miami or even a mild Panamá, not the front door of the Tundra’s Steppe region. Kyiv, Ukraine.

She lay in a narrow twin bed, a pencil bed, she thought, and remembered arriving at the tall apartment building late the night before. It had appeared to Hannah to be a rooming house taking up two or more floors of the building, but no one had explained any part of her arrival, and she had not asked. A woman had expected them, showing Hannah almost immediately to this room. Hannah had nearly neglected her handy-wipe routine, she had been that tired. Nearly, but not quite.

The morning air, already settling into stillness, drifted in through a barred window. Hannah noticed the lack of a screen, the orderly décor of the room, the frill on the tatted lace window curtains, and the bedside telephone from the 1960’s.

The flight from St. Louis had been filled with regrets for her, and beer for Anton.  Thankfully, he had been talkative, and Hannah, behaving as a good student should, had developed her fluency through listening.

At least she fit better into the small craft’s seats than did Young Cleo, cramped, unhappy and showing her discomfort. They had transferred planes at Teterboro, a private airport in New Jersey. Eventually Anton had begun to snore, and Hannah had turned to The Wall Street Journal, translating it into Ukrainian as she read the pages to herself, ignoring her misgivings while concentrating on the language. She had muffled the drone of the engines with her ear plugs, but had not slept at all.

When she greeted her hostess in Kyiv, it had been in a careful, but correct, Ukrainian voice.

As Hannah further woke, the tiny doubt that had sat itself down in the back corner of her mind began to wake up and stretch. Hadn’t that been her objective: to learn the Ukrainian language? That mixture of Ukrainian with other Slavic languages – what had Anton called it? Surgic? – was certainly unnecessary. And to what third language had he been referring? Perhaps that was simply conversational filigree to keep her interest.

With the humid air backing into the room, Hannah decided since she had met her objective, she would take the next flight back to St. Louis, and continue on her vacation. The return flight did not appeal to her, but even less did the promise of inescapable heat and screen-less windows. What did she owe Anton?

She rose from the narrow bed, carefully turning back the blankets and sheets from their tucked-in position inside the frame. Sitting on the side of the bed, she let the jet-lagging dizziness drain away before standing up. She felt hot. Her brain operated as if in slow-motion. She touched the spot at the back of her ear.

Hannah wondered if the air might be fresher outside the room. The rectangular window, divided into three unequal sections, had metal slats disrupting the view. She stepped closer, pulled the window into a wider opening and looked out.

The apartment had been built on a hill that fell away quickly toward a planned grid of city life. Behind the window’s mass of green, she saw a sleek golden dome above a bright white tower, then a golden dome resting on a green tower, then another, and another, each one a smaller replica of the first.

For a reason she couldn’t quite name, she held her breath, taking in the sight. Doubt fled her mind, and Hannah knew she was looking at the view that would keep her in this country a little while longer.

“In person. Right here. In front of me. Kyiv’s famous St. Sofia Cathedral,” she whispered.

Through the shimmering hot air, behind St. Sofia’s, she saw the competing brilliant gold domes above the pale blue and white of St. Michael’s Cathedral. In this region of perpetual struggle, even the churches shouldered each other aside to claim territory. Or tried to. The sight pulled her attention with a surprisingly strong demand. She could postpone her trip back for a day. In fact, she felt she must.

Cleo Nineteen

Thursday, 7 AM Kyiv, Ukraine

The crisp bed sheets held her tight and the thin pillow eased her head. She breathed deep, a long and pleasant in-breath, full of aromas she couldn’t name. Cleo opened her eyes just enough to confirm it was morning. But the bed had cradled her all night, and the fatigue of the flight hadn’t yet lifted. She hadn’t quite let go the comfort of sleep, didn’t want to. The air held an intoxicating quality that kept her in the pleasant state between wakefulness and sleep. She invited the full restfulness back in.

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.”

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Seventeen

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.

Cleo Seventeen

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.

Vowels, Vodka and Voices

Hannah Sixteen

Tuesday, 12:55 PM St. Louis, Missouri

The bus driver climbed the steps, reached over the seat and started the engine. The action needed no words to announce to the passengers their last call. Most were already in their seats. Hannah looked over her shoulder, adjusting her backpack strap, as she waited in the building’s shadow. She looked for the Ukrainian, whose name might be Anton, if Carlos was to be trusted.

The part of her mind devoted to languages reminded her there was so much more to know, and few people to teach her. Anton, though, could. If she stopped now, with such a learning experience right before her, she may never fill that gap between speaking this new language like a toddler and speaking as adults should. Three more hours in the bus, even that would get her to an acceptable level, not an educated speaker of Ukrainian, of course, but communicative.

The other part of her mind begged caution. That mental voice, refined by working for JSA for the better part of two decades, reminded her to listen to professional advice. When she had fled John Smith and his troupe, it had been to deal with the overwhelming hurt, not because they had failed in their jobs. Maybe she didn’t care to return to work, but she should certainly use their expertise to make her travels safe. If Carlos warned her about Anton, there must be a reason.

Carlos said Anton didn’t always tell the truth, but Anton’s voice so far, as much as she could tell, had been clean, without strong emotion, relaxed. Did Anton mean to cause Hannah harm? She tentatively touched the spot behind her ear. He’d have to talk to Hannah for that to matter, and so far, he hadn’t said a word directly to her. And if he did, would that be bad? Such a rich learning experience, but at what cost? In a public place, she could always just walk away if things got tense.

The engines revved. Hannah took one step toward the bus from under the waiting area awning. Three passengers ran from the station and boarded. But Anton did not appear. She looked toward the shops area, looked around the far side of the bus. No Anton. With just the one open door next to the driver, she could not have missed the Ukrainian.

What did Hannah want from this trip? To learn a new language or to ride a bus to Kansas City?

What compelled her to follow the Ukrainian inside the station? And why should she continue the search? Twenty years ago, she might have owed JSA enough to follow Anton, but now, it was about the language. Certainly, just the language. There weren’t that many major tongues in the world she hadn’t mastered and this one called to her like no other. She almost would describe it as irresistible.

Anton, though, was nowhere to be seen, so Hannah’s loyalties and her quest for one more language might not find a resolution. The bus driver leaned forward, pushed a button on the console, and the door gave a hiss.

Hannah simply watched the unrepentant action around her. The door closed. The bus eased out of the diagonal parking space. Hannah stood still. The driver hadn’t looked her direction. Her fellow passengers did not clamor at her absence. Maybe she did not matter to that incidental series of events in that moment when she was left behind.

But it did mean something to Hannah. It helped her decide.

She had her pack, with her ticket tucked in the pocket, and nothing to lose. She would find Anton and convince him to help her learn the language. A cup of tea together, a long walk inside the station. Hannah could learn much of what she needed in that amount of time. She took a step back toward the station, then stopped.

Anton Smirnov stood a few feet away in the shadows between her and the safety of the retail area. He looked directly at Hannah, blew a thin line of smoke from his mouth, and scowled.

“You missed the bus,” she said in English.

“You, also, missed bus.”

“I most certainly did.”

The man looked at Hannah with intensity, with something else she couldn’t name. Why was this man so intriguing? Was it the language, the accent? She calmed her breath, alerted her listening ear. This study of language was her a-b-c’s. If she could get him to converse, she could know every important detail.

“You little lady with language,” he said. “You know what people saying?”

Hannah wanted to object to the description, but forced herself instead to listen for the trill of the ‘r’ sound and the heaviness of ‘l’.

“Can you repeat that?” she said.

“You know what people saying. Is right?”

Hannah heard the grip of the ‘g’. She thought about the unnecessary force in his words, a cultural link into the sound of his primary language. What social fabric would give birth to such vocal posturing? Would she be able to hear violence in this voice, so different from her native tongue? Would she hear the lie, if it was present?

“Say to me ‘language’ in English and Ukrainian,” she said.

Anton gestured with impatience as he removed the cigarette, then spoke. “Movu. Movu. Language. I think you know this.”

The voice was riddled with defensiveness, but she could hear no violent intent in his words.

“Say to me ‘bus station’,” she said.

“Why this bus station, language? Are we children?” Anton placed the cigarette on his bottom lip, where it waggled as he spoke. “I have question.”

“Ah. That’s better. See how you relaxed? No tension.”

But could she reliably read violence in this new-to-her culture?

“I still have question.”

‘Please, ask whatever you like.”

“You come to Ukraine? I have job for you.”

“Of course not, not that,” said Hannah. “A walk while we talk, perhaps.”

“Is beautiful country. You hear language. You come?”

How did he know that would appeal to her? She was surprised at his words. Should she be frightened? How much did he know about her? And why?

“Why would you ask such a thing? I have no passport.”

She stopped the sentence short as she reminded herself she had no passport as Hannah Black. But, she did have a passport. How did this man know her? Finding out might take more than a walk.

“Maybe you come…”

His smile relaxed Hannah. He said the words with a rhythm, a sing-song. She had detected no threat in the voice, but was it because she simply couldn’t yet read the accent in his spoken English? In his native Ukrainian, his intentions would be evident, but Ukrainian was one language she didn’t know. Now that she herself might be the target, could she evaluate the threat?

“So, this is not coincidence,” she said. “You know who I am?”

“You little language lady. Yes, I know. You have two Hannah names. You have passport. Passport no problem.”

“Why would you know that?”

Anton smiled as the nearly-spent cigarette arced upward.

He bent toward Hannah and said, “Our friend, Sandra, she tell me.”

“Why would your friend Sandra know about me and my vacation?”

“Sandra is John Smith and Associates,” said Anton.

“That means nothing to me.”

“You test me. You know language. You know what I say.”

He was asking the same question she had asked herself. Could she give herself a guarantee of safety, as she had thousands of clients before? As she waited, Anton spoke again.

“Am I friendly man?”

He put the cigarette out of its misery on the sidewall of the nearest column. He smiled and raised his eyes to Hannah, nudging out a response from her.

If Hannah judged the man on appearance, with his low-hanging and belted slacks, his raincoat with its many pockets, and his indeterminate middle-aged look with that smile that did not quite convince, she would never feel secure. But Hannah possessed a skill that she had avoided for years. She still believed it was valid. She was confident this man was no threat to her. He may be complex, yes, like most people. But there was no menace in his voice. And there was a pull in his language that tickled the back of her memory.

She breathed deep and gave herself the assessment she would have given Michael and Rico ten years before. No threat. She could sense no violence in this man’s words.

Cleo Sixteen

Tuesday, 1:05 PM St. Louis, Missouri

“No way in the seven heavenly virtues am I going to follow Anton Smirnov through St. Louis, a place I do not know, in a car I can barely drive. I don’t really have any gas left. None at all.”

“Can you get a quick photo and send? The two together if you can, but just him would be fine.”

“Sandra, I have not been trained in any sort of surveillance, to the extent that I don’t even have the vocabulary to tell you what I do not know. I can’t…”

“It’s a simple photo. Pretend it’s a selfie. Just tap reverse. Good God, you should know how to do that.”

“I’m not nearly close enough,” said Cleo. “It would look too suspicious. Oh for heaven’s sake, I am so sure Carlos is here. Can’t he…?”

“Oh. He just did, Cherie. I’m looking at a picture of the two of them now. Well, well. Yes, my dear, I think you’ll be following along. We can’t have my friend Anton traipsing around with Hannah all by himself. They make a truly odd couple, don’t they?”

“No, Sandra. I am done.”

“You can make a guess as to where they’re going, Miss Cleo. Now, this is all beginning to make some sense. I’m sure you’ve heard me mention Anton.”


“Nearest international airport. Chicago will have flights to Ukraine. Just get yourself there, and we’ll figure out something on our end. Everything will be fine.”

“Not St. Louis. Never Chicago. Ukraine? Absolutely not.”

“Who would have guessed it’d be Anton?” said Sandra.

“You can’t just find people in O’Hare. It’s not that easy.”

“This may actually be a bit of genius.”


“Good thing we always prepare for the possibilities. You’ll meet with someone in Chicago.”

“Hell, no.”