Vowels, Vodka and Voices
by SUSAN VASQUEZ
© 2019 by Susan Vasquez
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from Susan Vasquez. Reviewers are welcome, of course, to quote brief passages.
Ten Years ago, Panamá City, Panamá
Trouble. She heard every bit of trouble. Hannah was the magnet; ominous voices were her metallic bits of bother. For decades, these spoken sounds had added their burden, burying her in pain. She waved the heat away from her face with a paper fan. She placed two fingertips on the bone at the back of her left ear. Whenever she heard trouble, Hannah felt the pain.
She stood with Michael and Rico on the curb 30 feet away from their client and the man he was meeting. Michael aimed the antenna from his cell phone toward the conversation. All three listened through wireless earplugs.
“Call it, Hannah,” said Rico. “Threat or no threat? Do your thing.”
“Come on, Hannah Banana, what do the voices tell you?” asked Michael. “Is this guy serious?”
“Let it out, Hanny. Turn us loose.”
“You two are livelier than the poor coffee salesman, and he thinks he has something to worry about,” said Hannah. “Why did we have to come here? Did his company receive a threat?” Michael shook his head. “Just a suspicion?” Rico gave a shrugging nod. “It must have been a well-paying client. Have they been here long?”
A passing bus broadcast vivid, beating sounds from a local radio station and gave Rico an excuse – not that he ever needed one – to dance a side step of the cumbia. With the motion, he turned his back toward the restaurant, giving Hannah a better view. The steam of downtown Panamá City, Panamá rose from the metal awning of the restaurant where the two conversing men sat.
But Hannah already knew her job was done. This meeting was motivated by ambition with a touch of jealousy, not violence. She heard all the detail in the one man’s voice. They watched from outside the patio restaurant as the last part of the conversation played out – intense, but not alarming, perhaps a financial concern. She didn’t even detect a spoken lie. Hannah could sign off on the threat assessment. This time, someone else could deal with the trouble and she could try to let the sounds fade away.
She breathed deep, hoping for relief, wishing things would change. But even this quick resolution of her assignment hadn’t stopped the spears of pain running from that tender spot in back of her ear to clash behind her eyes. How could she get rid of the pain?
Slowly Hannah shook her head and glanced up at Rico and Michael.
“No threat,” she said.
The animation drained from their faces.
“We came all this way? Come on, Hanny,” said Rico, “give us something to do. Please.”
“There’s nothing to fix here,” said Hannah.
“Then make something up.”
“Go home,” she said.
“Please. Something small.” As Rico spoke, Michael put a hand on his arm, nodding his head toward the side street, a retreat. But Rico continued, with a laughing plea. “Hannah. You’re the One. You don’t even have to explain yourself to the Boss. You always get it right. Like a machine. No one will notice a tiny favor. Just give us one little thing. Follow them for a day? Please?”
Hannah watched as Michael became more successful in distracting Rico. He put his cell phone in his pocket, turned his baseball cap forward, nodded at Hannah, took a step away. Working with these two young men the past three years had nearly made Hannah’s pain go away. She touched the bone behind her left ear. She was sure she was right. There was distress, but nothing more in the voices, no true malice, no violent backstory sound. No threat. No falsehood. She had hoped the piercing throb would retreat with the absence of a killing intent. But it hadn’t. And it wasn’t because Rico had compared her to a machine. She wasn’t a machine. It was time for Hannah to follow through with her decision.
“See you two later,” she said.
Hannah walked away from them, like it was just a normal day, knowing they would never hear the lie in her own voice.
Ten Years Ago, Marion, Iowa
The salad lay before her on the white hexagonal tiles of her mother’s kitchen in Marion, Iowa. Only the cucumbers waited to be sliced, then placed on top, in a crisscross pattern, like always. Is this why Cleo had graduated college? So she could come back home, make the Saturday afternoon salad and sit for two hours listening to her mother and aunt talk about Harry’s receding hairline and Vera’s trips to the fat farm?
“Did you put just a spritz of Tabasco in the French dressing?”
“Yes, Auntie,” said Cleo.
She scored the cucumbers, releasing the fresh scent that always relaxed her. Maybe things would work out. Perhaps IBM International would hire her, and maybe then she could work her way to one of the smaller, elite consultancy firms: John Smith and Associates, giving advice to businesses engaged in international trade.
“How are things coming along, Cleo? For heaven’s sake, you do love to dally.”
“Just fine, Mother. Almost done.”
She breathed in again. Maybe all that could happen. Cleo picked up the salad from the aged tiles. This had been her Great Grandmother Cleola’s house, then her grandmother’s house, now her mother’s. How did she get all the way to her goals from this kitchen in Marion, when each female forebear of her family had stayed, alone?
Present Day, Monday, 9 AM Los Angeles International Airport
Endless pieces of language filled the airport waiting area. Hannah heard them all. She instantly translated eleven Mandarin words as one family passed by. How long had it been? Thirteen years since she had worked in that tongue. And the tonal emotion of the language: love, concern, need, humor, spoken so casually by the throngs gave her intimate knowledge of each talker who passed by.
Not the airport chill, not the slap-slap of a thousand haphazard foot falls, not even the loudspeaker spewing unintelligible sounds could drown out the nearby spoken words. She had hoped that her time spent away from work would dull her skills. She should have known better. Words continued to be everlasting trouble. Even so, just one truly held her attention.
“Don’t,” the man had said into a cell phone. There it was again, forceful, dynamic. Trouble of the worse kind. Among the countless syllables floating around, it pulled at her. “Don’t,” he had said in a killing voice.
Hannah tucked her chin, aimed her head down, and tried to make the words retreat. Especially that one word, spoken in a voice she always understood. The lies people told were sometimes harmless, but the violence, the true heartfelt threat, that understanding brought intense pain. It wasn’t a fair exchange, the pain for the violent truth. But it wasn’t her business any longer and hadn’t been for ten years.
During that intervening decade, she had tolerated occasional bouts of substitute teaching, saving up for this trip, a small excursion after so many years of traveling the world for work. She had trained herself to be careful, to remain hidden. Today, the voices surrounded her, echoing into the cavern of the waiting area gates, and called for her attention. Would that one word send her fleeing back home, hiding in her made-up life for another decade until she could venture out again? She didn’t have that many decades left.
If only she could observe from a distance, like she used to, pulling sounds as she saw fit and taking her time to study the tone, syllabication, context and connection to the speaker. Or she could let the hum take over, the only time she could ever have peace. It had taken her years to perfect the hum that covered up all the other sounds.
A nearby aroma caught Hannah’s attention. She needed a distraction, and paused by The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, resenting the bully scent of coffee over the delicate subtlety of tea. But here, she could withdraw from the chaotic vocal crowd. She took a breath, stepped toward the café.
Hannah had exact plans; she had only to put one foot in front of the other and push the languages into the background.
Present Day, Monday, 9:10 AM Los Angeles International Airport
“P-l-z,” Cleo tapped into her phone for the fourth time.
“N-o-n,” her boss sent the instant response.
Cleo wondered why Sandra sent messages in French. It only complicated things. And Cleo didn’t need more complications this morning. The early flight from Panamá City, Panamá had been enough.
“E-x-t-r-e-m-e-l-y O-d-d L-t-l W-o-m-a-n,” she sent.
Cleo continued to follow the woman through the waiting area of LAX Terminal Six. She worked her thumb against the phone until Hannah Prudence Antrim’s photo appeared. The woman didn’t look ten years older than the photo, just ten years weirder, and she’d had a head start on weird. Cleo wished again for her office at John Smith and Associates: uncluttered, infused with cucumber seed essential oil, a safe place where she could reveal her clients in written form. Writing, the thing she did best, in a climate-controlled office using other written information to validate her own. She had her reputation to look after, built on writing, not foot-work.
Cleo took a deep breath, felt the tightness of her hand around the silent phone, and consciously relaxed the tension. Observe the client, she told herself. That’s what Carlos would do. Responsible, steady, talented Carlos. And young, the other employees said. When would she meet him in person? Maybe that would be the pay-back from this absurd task. They had nicknamed him Phantom. He could be anywhere and look like anyone. Observe Hannah. Her agency wasn’t a policing group, did not enter dangerous situations. She could observe this woman and safely survive this test. Maybe even meet Carlos.
Hannah wore loose khaki pocket pants with a three-inch wide belt, a heavy white over-shirt ironed to a spray-starched sheen and carried a filled back pack. She had hair so short it was probably called a boy’s cut. Cleo tried to name the hair color. Maybe fading taupe. From across the crowded airport waiting room, her middle-aged Anglo face had that no-makeup look. She was so short she could get lost in a crowd, but would never blend in.
The woman had supported her thrifty lifestyle by substitute-teaching as Hannah Black for the past nine years. The people who knew her before said she knew languages like no one else on earth. John Smith and Associates had paid well for her expertise until she had run away. They’d never been able to replace her. Weird she was, but also brilliant. Now, those one-of-a-kind skills had pulled attention back to her. That, and the airplane ticket.
“J-o-b f-o-r C-a-r-l-o-s, t-h-i-s,” Cleo tapped into her phone.
“C-a-l-l m-e,” came the response from Sandra, the one who usually reached out.
Cleo did not call; her boss could wait. She pocketed the phone, aware that the earpiece was still an open line of communication. Cleo knew that she had neglected this part of the job for too long. Neglected, talked her way out of, made deals to avoid. She let LAX fully reassert itself. Cleo had written the official update to Hannah’s file, so she knew the verbal soup of the airport would threaten the other woman’s calm.
Hannah would search for a place to get a cup of hot water, nothing else, just hot water, into which she would place a sterile tea bag of Peet’s Earl Grey. She would count out two minutes, dip the bag four times, squeeze out the remains, and find a trash receptacle, regretting the need for a bag in place of loose tea leaf. Hannah would stand to drink the brew, but she would not lean against the dirty walls in public places. Soon she would begin to show signs of irritation: too much noise, too many people moving around.
Cleo glanced to the crowd, noticing the swarm of humankind. It took effort, almost break-a-sweat effort, to keep track of Hannah. She would never be like most people, but she could hide behind almost anyone, and a family of four or five gave her more than enough cover. Sandra had assured Cleo this was a simple morning’s walk through an airport following an eccentric woman. No big deal. The others would be close by to do what they do; her part was to follow. Nothing more than simple observation.
Cleo tapped her earpiece, placed the call to Sandra.
“I am so good at writing reports. People love my reports. I can’t write them when I’m in an airport following odd folk,” Cleo said.
If only she could survive this one street-level contact, Cleo might be able to stay in her clean office and her dream job. Let Carlos have the street-work. He was probably a slob with a dirty half-grown beard.
Monday, 9:15 AM Los Angeles International Airport
Hannah pulled out her change purse from her backpack, checked the fold where she placed her bills from low to high, and then unzipped to find three quarters, four dimes and one nickel. Hannah stepped up to the line extending out from The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, wishing the aroma of Earl Grey was as ever-present as coffee.
“Did you hear about that kidnapping?”
Just ahead of her in line a man about her age, say 52, nodded toward the TV screen in the adjacent lounge area. She craned her neck up to look at him, a motion that took away even the small social pleasure of conversation. And it was always quite small. Conversation had words, true, but it also had face to face people.
“I rarely watch television,” she said, momentarily looking that direction, seeing the news program format, with a banner running along the bottom, someone’s pretty head talking with serious expression. Never mind the news, she thought, always trouble there. Where was the hum, the layer of comfort that crowded out the overwhelming mix of daily noise? She had learned to cope by using the hum as her mediator to the world.
The man, though, was too close to ignore. He labored over his d’s and t’s, making them more important than they really were, and it annoyed her to have to notice.
Leave it, she told herself. Let him be as tall as he is and say all the collaborative sounds of his background and temperament. Forget him like you forgot the man with murder in his voice. Look up to the scaffolding, think about the shiny packet of Peet’s Earl Grey in your wallet.
“It’s been on radio, too.” He paused like he’d asked a question. She shook her head. His voice had the confident tone of a radio announcer, practiced and orderly, with traces of southern rural influence mostly edited out after years in a city. He wore a grey suit that looked smooth, and moved with him. “Maybe you follow the news tweets?”
“No,” she said.
“I’m a junkie. All news, all day.”
“Aspiring for a heart attack?” she asked, and after a moment’s pause, they laughed that tight, uncomfortable laugh of strangers. Feeling the stab of her comment, she made a conciliatory shrug. It wasn’t his fault she had lost the hum. She would find it again after her coffee. Or tea. “Where are you headed?” she asked.
“Chicago,” he said, then introduced himself, using careless tones and casual lies.
Hannah let her mind reduce his words to fuzzy sounds, like Charlie Brown’s teacher. A woman stepped back from a spot near the door to grab at an errant child, and Hannah listened for the child’s complaint, hoping for a lisp. A scraggly-haired college-looking youth, outfitted with long skinny jeans, a wrinkled tee-shirt, and a heavy canvas bag strapped across his chest joined them in line.
Radioman shined his smile over her head.
“News junkie?” asked Radioman to the youth.
“Primary sources only, man,” said the youth, rushing through his vowels like young people do.
The voices pressed up close to Hannah, challenging her indifference. She looked to the cavern, where the voices had swirled around her, words pulling her this way, then the other. And that one word. Back to the coffee aroma, she thought, let the dense smell distract you, then the whoosh of the steam. Almost a hum itself.
“Have you seen that story?” asked Radioman. “Looks like a middle-eastern type with some sort of kidnap victim. And us getting on a plane.”
“It’s quite a short flight to Chicago,” said Hannah.
“I’m continuing to D.C. At least we’re far away from the Middle East. I caught about ten seconds of the report on the radio. They said the kidnapper gave CNN a live feed. What I want to know is why there’s just that one picture. If there was a live feed, what happened to it?”
The woman pulled her children through the door. The line stepped forward. The younger man brought a thin, wide phone out of his pocket, splayed his hip to balance the bag, and tapped the screen with rapid authority. A technology geek, thought Hannah. She breathed deep, released the words. It wasn’t her business.
“Video feed, you think?” he asked. “Let’s find out.” The geek made sliding motions with a finger. “Hello YouTube. List recent. Nope, not there. How about Reddit? Guess not. Jockular? Ah. Here we go.”
The younger man tilted the phone, clicked on a thumbnail photo of the kidnapping, if that’s what it was. A gritty picture surfaced on the screen. The mother glanced back, gave that holier-than-your-mama look that Hannah had received too often in the classroom.
The young geek, still clicking and scrolling, adjusted the volume and size of the video. He kept his voice sleek, rolling the syllables together. Was there falsehood in his voice? Hannah thought so. That, and a good bit of trouble, cleverly hid behind fast words.
“Here we go. Primary sources. You gotta love them.”
With fractured sound and jerking video, the news-in-a-box photo began to move. A metallic sound cracked through the phone’s speakers. Two people, both masked with loose hoods, faced the camera in a badly-lit room that failed to show any detail that might distinguish them. One stood behind the other in a tight one-armed bear hug. He spoke.
“Spanish,” Hannah said, like a knee-jerk reaction.
She bit her lip, listened for a moment, hoping Geek would speak again in his easy lying voice. Around her, people focused on the kidnapper speaking to the camera. Hannah looked back to the cavern and silenced her own voice, but the screen pulled her attention. Even with the muffled sound, the words called to her. She weighed the temptations and her strength. Then Radioman looked up, and she was caught.
“Doesn’t sound Spanish,” he said. “Sounds Middle Eastern to me.” Hannah looked back to the video, where the man spoke words she knew in tones she had heard often. Radioman continued in that secure ‘knows what he’s talking about’ voice, stressing those d’s, making every other sound stop and pay attention. “Looks Middle-Eastern.”
The hooded man continued to address the video camera, and she knew what the words were, what they meant. The tone, the accent and the familiar sounds all drew her in. Where had she heard these words?
“There’s no doubt,” said Radioman. “Definitely one of those terrorist countries.”
“Terrorist country, you think?” asked Geek.
Radioman waved his hand toward some faraway place, tossing away the blame to another corner of the world. “Someplace in the Middle-East. Just look at their history.”
Falsehoods, all of it. And such ignorance. Then Hannah spoke, without planning, without counting the words or wondering the costs.
“It’s not any Middle-Eastern language,” Hannah said. “His voice is South American Spanish. I know these words. Don’t I know this accent.”
The kidnapper’s words continued, the intonation drawing her in, a pattern she recognized, but couldn’t yet name. Hannah stopped, listened, let her mind retreat ten years while LAX faded into the distant background and the voice from the screen filled her.
Monday, 9:20 AM Los Angeles International Airport
“Sandra, there’s a crowd sort of gathering around her,” said Cleo.
“Cherie, it’s nice that you are keeping me informed, but you really don’t need to call at every step along the way. Didn’t we just speak moments ago?”
“It’s just that it looks a bit intense to me. You said to follow her, but she looks sort of gummed up with people, and I know she won’t like that.”
“That’s quite sweet. You’ve gotten into her head with your research and writing. But now, please remember, you are just following. Watching. Don’t worry about anything else. I have another call, Cherie. I must go. It will all be just fine.”
“Fine?” said Cleo, but her boss was gone.
Monday, 9:23 AM Los Angeles International Airport
The snick sound of a blade preceded a metallic gleam and the kidnapper pulled a knife to the other man’s throat.
“Not from the large cities, though,” she said aloud, feeling the old intense pull of the words, a puzzle to figure out. “It’s a voice from western South America. Spanish, but with that Andean influence. Can you hear it? That sibilant double L sound. Floats over those hard consonants.”
“If this video is real,” said Radioman, “maybe we shouldn’t watch.”
The young geek’s fingers lay still, framing the phone. The held-man’s hood glistened wet beneath the kidnapper’s hand as he continued to speak in those sounds that Hannah knew. The video was indistinct, in gray tones, and the words were less than clear. Hannah concentrated. She felt herself let go, wrapped in the words like old friends.
“Ecuador,” she said, “but the northern part. Citified, but with an overwhelming influence from the campo. College voice, though, definitely college. But with that unnecessary use of ‘pues’, multiple times. Did you notice?”
Radioman took the breath of a long response, but the kidnapper stopped speaking, pulling attention back to the screen. Quickly he brought his fisted knife across the other man’s throat, cutting roughly through the fabric of the hood. An immediate wet rupture drenched the kidnapper’s arm. The held man slumped.
Radioman said “Oh my God,” then turned away, holding the crease between his eyes.
“I can’t believe this,” said Geek. “An execution? Wouldn’t they screen it?”
The kidnapper spoke again, the words like pure oxygen renewing Hannah. She felt the lift in her spirits as the familiar sounds settled into known patterns and the syllabic puzzle pieces fell into place.
“Yes, I do know that inflection,” she said. “That high mountain aspiration. The soft r’s and the nuance around that third syllable. It grabs you, that speech pattern, doesn’t it? Not exactly coffee region. But definitely a city in Northern Ecuador. There aren’t that many.”
“Can you stop the video, please?” asked Radioman, but the young geek seemed frozen. The held man bled and the kidnapper again spoke.
“Maybe Tulcan,” Hannah continued. “But listen to him. What about all that aspirated consonant? Has to be farther south and there isn’t much around. Pasqua: small city in the campo, high Andean region. Barrio Luche, I think, west part of the city. More or less Avenida 24 or 25. That’s where the college population resides.” She listened. “Yes. Definitely Barrio Luche, Pasqua, Ecuador. I’d swear to it.”
Hannah looked away from the screen, triumphant, only to see Radioman glaring at her as if she should be the one holding the knife. Young Geek, who had started it all, finally clicked out of the video and closed the screen. Radioman voiced his opinion in clipped judgmental tones.
“Swear to it? As if the language is important,” he said. “Didn’t you even see the killing?”
She tried to ignore him, aiming her face downward, breathing in the coffee, letting go the words. In her exhilaration, she had forgotten what came next.
The hurt pressed upon her, more real than the violence on the screen. She could trap the language again, reactivate the hum. But now, having let the syllables lay soft against her mind so that she might track their origin, right to the very street this time, Hannah realized how much she had missed it. There was the pleasure of the language, then the pain in success.
The hum would drown out the voices, once she brought it back to mind. But first, she had to remember how to get rid of the crushing hurt.
Monday, 9:30 AM Los Angeles International Airport
Her pocket buzzed and Cleo wondered why she ever put the phone away. Despite Sandra’s rebuke, frequent calls littered Cleo’s working days and they usually came from her boss.
She slid out the phone, still watching the scene in front of her unfold, expecting to hear from Sandra, expecting to have to describe Hannah’s odd reaction and the woman’s inability to control herself. Cleo hadn’t been close enough to see what everyone was looking at or to hear the talking. But she had seen the physical responses and the body language. Disturbing.
Before Cleo could bring the phone up close, the crisp, slightly upper-class voice of the big boss spoke into her ear bud.
The surprise caught her off-guard, and for a moment Cleo wondered if this was a personal conversation, from JS to Cleo. But John Smith and Associates – JSA – did not function on such a short leash. She reminded herself there were three other people linked. And possibly more she did not know about.
“John Smith speaking,” he said. “Follow through according to plan. She still has her skill – most of it, and we need to get to it before they do.”
Cleo risked a call to Sandra.
“You forgot to tell me something, didn’t you?”
“Cherie, there are always things we don’t know. Remember that.”
“So I’m done here, right? I don’t know a thing about any plan.”
“Done? Not exactly, Cherie.”
My God, living in the first person was more exhausting than a thousand re-writes.
Monday, 9:40 AM Los Angeles International Airport
Hannah chose a seat close to the window in the waiting area, cleansed the armrests and fake leather with a handy-wipe, and waited for them to announce boarding. The flight, three hours and a half to Chicago, could not pass quickly enough.
The hum had not returned, but at least she had escaped the scene at the coffee house, slipping out of line and away from the commotion. She had learned that people often don’t question odd-looking women, and she had taken advantage of that to escape. Compared to the airport’s potent mix of verbiage, she hoped the flight might be calming.
As the hurt faded, a fragment of doubt began to edge its way into her awareness. She had made the correct identification, she was sure of that, but something was amiss. It’s not my business, she reminded herself. As soon as she was on the plane, she could pull her ear plugs out from the backpack, and seek the quiet, begin to forget. Failing that, she had her book, or earphones and music: several hours’ worth of distractions.
She was glad to be rid of Radioman and Geek. Hannah could have done nothing about the killing, so why had they become irritated with her? Maybe she knew the answer, but she’d ignored it for a long time. Ten years, in fact, and never a mistake like that one. But there was something more, something she was missing. She ran her fingers hard over her arms, rubbed the words away, tried to forget their goodness. She hadn’t really failed, or if she had, she’d caught herself in time.
Hannah’s carry-on backpack contained a thrifty five-day supply, to be laundered six times during her trip, deftly rolled to reduce wrinkles, or zipped into plastic bags for easy proof that she was not planning a criminal act. She certainly hadn’t planned to witness one.
In the front pocket of her document wallet she had a train ticket back to LA. Its goodness sent a stir of pleasure. She had no passport, and that pleased her, too. She had never needed a passport for Hannah Black. Think about the good things: free time, train travel, being alone. In four hours, she would be in Chicago and the pleasant journey would begin.
The seat next to hers was empty and with a settling-in of the passengers waiting to board, it might stay that way. Quiet. She bent down, reaching for her pack sitting squarely on the floor and felt for the train ticket again.
Finding the sharp corners in the open sleeve should have reassured her, but instead she recalled the knife wielded by the Pasquano. Had to be Pasqua, all that sibilance, all those pues’s. Had the city given in to violence? When Hannah knew the area, it had been a refuge of peace. Others had called the people reserved, but she had thought of them as refined. And the language? Poetic. Forget that, she reminded herself, leave the language. Four hours and then her reward would begin. Think about that. She forced a long slow breath, shook out a tissue and placed it on the seatback where her head might settle.
A woman who looked roughly 75 years old stopped at the empty seat next to Hannah. She wore an elegant green suit, matching fabric pumps, carried a briefcase-sized tapestry travel bag. She gave Hannah a frail smile as she settled into the chair. The lady bumped lightly around, making excusing sounds while Hannah turned to look out the window.
The woman’s high-toned sighs annoyed Hannah. Not words, the sounds still called for clarification and interpretation. Hannah simply wanted to sit in peace. She brought her book to her lap, opened to the marked page, and sought the hum.
“Did you hear of that killing?” Hannah heard the woman ask, but the voice seemed aimed away from her, so she kept her eyes on the page and waited. A woman two seats down answered in a strong voice with a Boston-area accent, maybe even from down-town.
“The one from yesterday?”
“Well, I wouldn’t know, I’m sure, but dead is dead, and that’s a shame. Take it out of God’s hands and only God knows what evil is loosed.”
The woman spoke like a Sunday school teacher in upper-middle class white America: suburban, educated, from the west but not California. Idaho, perhaps. Like most casual conversation, her words contained a careless quality, straddling honesty and a lie.
“I think you’re probably right,” said the woman from Boston.
“Well, dear, gives us more reason to be thankful, considering the way things are.”
“People in those countries, they must feel so unsure.”
“Of course, they do, dear. I used to live where the killing occurred. Beautiful little city, in spite of everything. Pasqua, Ecuador it’s called.”
Truth or lie? Hannah willed her lids not to budge, tucked her chin a fraction and kept listening. As much as she wanted, she could never shut down. But the woman from Boston murmured a commiseration, and the conversation lagged. Hannah noticed movement and saw the older lady’s hands come back into view, both of them, immobile on their shared armrest. The lady wore a large ring with a marquis-cut emerald circled by tiny clear emerald chips. Popping veins and age spots decorated her hands. Her brittle fingernails were lacquered in a clear coating.
The lady leaned forward, reaching for her travel bag with her right hand. Her left hand used the movement to hide the thin but hard rectangular blue booklet that she pulled out of her pocket. It was wider than the armrest, measurable but thin and about five inches long. Hannah instantly recognized it as a passport, and pressed her shoulders hard into the seatback.
The booklet lay beneath the lady’s hand on the armrest for only a moment. With a veiled flick, the older woman sent it onto Hannah’s lap, where it opened as if by old habit to the picture page.
Her travel plans, the video in the airport, the lady from Pasqua: too many coincidences. They must have been searching. And now they had found her.
Hannah looked at the two-by-two-inch color photo of herself, a mostly brown-haired woman of 53, using short bangs to hide the worry lines on her forehead, clear eyes focused directly on the camera. She wore today’s long-sleeved white shirt, but the picture was labeled with a name she hadn’t used in ten years.
“Welcome back, Ms. Antrim. John Smith sends his regards,” said the older lady in a nubby soft whisper using her Idaho voice and speaking the truth.
The heat of intense feelings burst behind Hannah’s eyes and her chest hurt with the strain of keeping calm. Hannah told herself to breathe, breathe again. But all she felt was the anger racing up her chest and into her throat, hot anger seeking escape. People understood her passport outbursts less than her interest in voices. She had struggled to learn control over the language and over her listening, but passports were a completely different trigger and the reaction pulled away from her with a life all its own, sliding out as sharp as the knife against the poor man’s throat.
“I don’t need passports ever again,” she said.
And then the thought that had been hanging back burst into her awareness. She realized what had been tugging at her mind, the trouble she had ignored while trying to find the hum. In all the tonal variations and vocal expressions coming from Geek’s phone screen, she had heard lies, but nothing had been said in a killing voice.
Monday, 9:45 AM Los Angeles International Airport
Cleo tapped the video call icon on her phone, connecting with her boss. She needed to see Sandra, watch her facial reaction. She needed more than remote words.
“Let’s make this simple, Sandra. You asked me to follow. I followed.”
“Another phone call, Cherie?”
“Hannah Black or Antrim, or whatever name she uses, it doesn’t matter now. I must be done, right? Cash-in the ticket, next flight back to the office?”
“You may say it’s different with video, but it’s really just a phone call with faces.”
“Did you hear me? Back to Panamá, where I can really help? There’s nothing more simple than that.”
Her boss looked at her from the screen of Cleo’s phone with her serene face – African and French at the same time – and a practiced smile that told anyone close by that she would laugh about this one tonight over her glass of Chablis. Or Champagne with cranberry.
“You’re the only one through security who can take the flight. You’ll be fine,” said Sandra, sitting comfortably in her office, probably with an ice-filled crystal glass of sparkling water off screen.
“The ticket’s in your app. The difficult part hasn’t even begun. You won’t be there for that. You’ll be safe back at the office writing the summary when the real challenges arise.”
“I was safe back at the office writing the analysis on Hannah Antrim last week. And by the way, no one said anything about a plan to contact her. No one said anything about anything. And nothing about a flight,” Cleo said.
“You’ll be fine. Just follow along. It’s not like she won’t figure things out. It’s been ten years or so, not a lifetime. She’ll remember her past. She might even miss it.”
“After keeping herself hidden for all that time?”
“Just do what you’re told and don’t worry about the rest.”
“I’m not worried. You keep telling me I’ll be fine.”
“You will. Of course, there’s always the scoundrels. They could help smooth out the contact.”
Cleo thought there was a subtle test here. Should she use the help or not? Would it be a good idea or bad? Rico and Michael, the scoundrels, were infamous, not famous. Carlos, maybe, was a hidden talent, but the scoundrels’ edgy shenanigans were well-known in the agency.
“No,” said Cleo. “I don’t need them. I won’t be here long, right?”
“You’re making that up.”
“They offered to help.”
“No,” said Cleo. “If I don’t do it on my own, John Smith might make me repeat the field work. And you can put that smile away right now.”
“You didn’t feel that way about Carlos’ help. A man you’ve never met – someone who is mostly myth.” Sandra’s smile turned into a laugh. “You’ll be fine. Not even the hard work yet. Just remember, Michael and Rico can help you be convincing, and they did offer. JS doesn’t need to know. You’ll be fine.”
Cleo scruffed out a growl at the face on the screen. “Says the one who will be drinking Chablis in an hour. I want your life.”
Sandra brought on-screen her fancy glass of sparkling water and raised it to Cleo.
“Mai non, Chérie. I shall be drinking iced cocoa, made with bitter dark chocolate and xylitol.”
“And I have met Carlos. I have. So I know all about his skill set,” said Cleo to her boss’ shaking head.
Monday, 5 PM Southwest Chief Amtrak Train, Chicago
The best thing about the United States is choice. Hannah had a train ticket in her bag and chose to use it. She had survived the flight, calling up her defense system, beginning with the hum.
Hannah did not have to be a part of JSA’s foolishness. It wasn’t her concern. She wasn’t a machine, forced into action with every voice. She now sat in the view car of the train, as she’d planned, watching the city lights of Chicago announce twilight in retreat. Certainly, a 75-year-old woman in pumps was not going to detain her.
On her lap lay the perfectly arranged backpack, reminding Hannah of earlier that morning when she had efficiently layered each item into a tight fit. Everything had been planned. She’d accounted for any possibility that her last ten years could have foretold. Now, all she needed to do was allow that vacation to unfold, just like the next day’s clothes.
Hannah had purchased items for dinner in the train station: a small container of Dijon mustard, sliced sharp cheddar, a sourdough baguette, a Gala apple. She had placed the bag into the top compartment of the outside pocket of the pack. She had filled her thermos with hot water, which waited for the tea bag from Peet’s. She now clutched at her dinner bag and figuratively raced after her travel plans.
For ten years, she had focused on the new life she had created. Hannah had made herself become someone who successfully forgot. She wanted to be that person again: controlled, predictable Hannah Black. But that Hannah would already have dug into the dinner, according to plan. The one with the new passport still simply held on to the bag.
The scene with the older woman at the waiting area lounge, a perfectly executed John Smith and Associate skit, wouldn’t leave her mind, despite her attempts to bury herself in the hum. The woman had gathered her belongings and walked away, leaving Hannah alone with a new old identity. Hannah gripped her pack tighter, tried to forget that she had taken possession of the new passport without a second thought.
“Hello, Ms. Antrim,” a voice pulled her attention, anxiety laced with extreme reserve. “May I have a seat?”
Hannah held back her exasperation and looked the speaker over. She matched her voice: a mid-30’s professional woman trying carefully to appear calmer than she felt. Her inflection was tightly controlled to sound like an American accent from everywhere or nowhere in particular. She continued.
“I apologize for upsetting your day, but you must have guessed that you are very much needed right now. Otherwise, JSA would not have gone to such extremes to get your new passport to you.” She held her words until she was sure of them, making her voice strain over each first sound in a word. Hannah knew how to use silence. She sat still and waited. She also listened very carefully as the younger woman spoke on.
“My name is Cleo. You may have guessed that I’ve been sent to bring you back. Your old friends miss you.” Cleo emitted a sound that should have accompanied a smile, but both the sound and the smile failed. “And, of course, the talents you offer. You must understand how very much you are needed.”
Now Cleo was repeating herself, obviously relying on a hastily-improvised script, and very nervous to get it right. Repetitions, however, were Hannah’s stock and trade. Hannah let her lips turn with the slight smile that might encourage young Cleo as she continued.
“You’ve kept yourself well-hidden these past several years.” Interesting word choice, something of her own, not in the script, Hannah guessed. Archaic, almost. And the double time she allowed in the ‘a’ sound of past. Hannah listened to the voice.
“People still speak about your work. How proud a person might be to have such a skill as yours.” Hannah listened to the use of the passive voice, the indefinite tense. “One hears about how very talented you were. Are. How talented you are. As was demonstrated today.”
This one was very nervous. But she spoke only truth. Hannah released her grasp on dinner, lay her back pack to the side seat, stood, poked her finger in Cleo’s direction and spoke.
“Grew up with old folk, didn’t you? Had to always be polite, hold your tongue. But you didn’t like it. Maybe you’ve spent some time in your job now, and don’t always have to be so polite, but old habits die hard. You disguise your voice well, Missy, so I can’t yet guess the region, but I can hear every resentful syllable you speak.”
Cleo kept her hands resting on the satchel in her lap. Hannah could see the effort involved, but waited only for the words, the pieces of language that would tell her more.
“You are analyzing me, and doing a good job of it,” Cleo looked miserable, her words a self-inflicted injury, “but I am not important right now.”
“That I understand so very well, Missy, you cannot imagine how well I understand. But just because you ask for my help isn’t reason for me to comply.”
“You must have guessed the situation. You took the passport.”
“A document with my photo on it? Why wouldn’t I take possession of something like that? Surely it does not belong to you.”
“And the video you witnessed this afternoon?” said Cleo. “Your help is so badly needed. No one else could make that identification.”
“No one should, young lady. That’s what you needed to say, ‘no one should’.”
“What you did today was extraordinary.”
“That I can do it does not mean it should be done,” said Hannah, feeling the pain momentarily resurface.
“But can’t you see that your ability to identify that man would help find him?”
“Why should I help anyone find him? Perhaps the other man deserved what he got. Should I give aid to that person’s enemy? And if my actions lead then to more violence, how have I helped?”
“I know it’s a lot to ask. But you are needed at JSA. Desperately needed.”
More repetition. And even if young Cleo’s voice wavered with indecision, she believed what she said. Hannah didn’t mention the lack of violent intent in the other voices, nor her growing uncertainties. Cleo let out a strong sigh. It was in the sigh, that unintentional piece of information, that spontaneous utterance, that Hannah sorted it all out.
Monday, 6:15 PM Southwest Chief Amtrak Train, Chicago
Why was this woman so irritating?
With her stubby pants and her too-short haircut, Cleo should be towering over her in self-confidence. But the woman standing in front of Cleo had a sense of position that Cleo herself never had outside her office. If only this exchange could happen there, in her safe zone, Cleo was sure she could exert influence, win her cause. Here, she hardly even knew what was her cause.
Still, the odd woman kept talking at Cleo with an exaggerated knowledgeable manner. When would she, Cleo, ever become that confident, that self-assured? If she couldn’t do it by 35 years old, she may never do it at all.
This woman – Hannah – was nearly 20 years older, and if there was one thing that Cleo did know, it was that Hannah had possessed this type of confidence for uncounted decades.
Monday, 6:16 PM Southwest Chief Amtrak Train, Chicago
“Iowa,” Hannah said. “You’re from Iowa. Not the bigger cities, if you can call them big. The kind of place that hides emotion for everyone’s comfort. Polite, loves those two-syllabic vowels. You’re from Iowa, Missy. Somewhere like Marion.”
Acceptance appeared in the younger woman’s eyes. Not necessarily that Hannah was correct, but that she was not easily controlled, and Hannah liked that recognition. Cleo appeared to gather herself, pulling her responses back inside, putting up her guard.
“It’s my job to persuade you to come back,” said Cleo.
“It would be fun to see your old friends.”
“There is simply no way for you to know that,” Hannah said.
“What if I told you it was for your own good?”
“Hah. You have no idea why John Smith wants to bring me in, do you?”
Hannah waited as Cleo pushed out a long sustained breath.
“Not a clue,” Cleo said. Hannah met her gaze with silence.
“Please,” said the younger woman, but Hannah did not respond. Cleo looked away, tapped her toe, then pulled herself tall and opened her satchel. “I’d been told that you might need some further convincing. So I was given this for possible communication.”
Cleo brought out a small notebook computer, flipped open the cover and tapped commands. She offered the screen to Hannah with a brusque movement, suddenly agitated.
“I’ve no use for that,” said Hannah. “And although I appreciate the honesty in your voice, I haven’t any use for you, either.”
“Ms. Antrim, your help is desperately needed.” Now the anxious voice, sticking to a careful script.
“Young lady, you don’t even know the reason John Smith is looking for me. Not the real reason.”
Cleo tapped a few icons and brought a link to full screen. Hannah turned away, put her arm through the strap on her pack, and stepped into the aisle.
“Please, Hannah, talk to them.”
Cleo held the notebook in front of Hannah, keeping pace with her movements. Hannah hefted her pack fully onto her back, took a step along the aisle. Then stopped.
On the computer screen was the hooded kidnap victim from today’s killing. Hannah’s pulse throbbed as she held her breath. The man was moving and speaking. And looking directly at Hannah.
She did not want to lose control of this interaction, but she felt a slide into the unknowable. The person on the screen was familiar, shrouded by a fabric veil, but almost recognizable. And very much alive. He removed the hood that had hidden his face. Hannah faltered, stepped back, and sat down.
“Michael,” she said.
“Hey there, Hannah Banana,” he said through the screen, easily, just as Hannah remembered him.
“It was you. But I didn’t know,” Hannah said.
“Stayed inside my hood and didn’t say a word. Here’s someone else you’ll want to say hi to.”
Michael looked to his right, and made room for the second hooded man, the suspected terrorist. That man pushed away the dark fabric covering his face, revealing first an arresting smile and then a head of wild black hair. Hannah leaned toward the screen.
“Rico,” she said.
“So, are you ready to come back to us now, Hanny?” asked Rico.
“The last time anyone called me that,” Hannah said, “I hid myself away for ten years.”
“No need to apologize. We never took it personally. You were just overdue for some R&R,” said Rico.
“I taught seventh grade. It was not relaxing.”
“So, now it’s time to come back and play,” said Michael.
The two jostled on the screen, lively, laughing.
“Maybe I didn’t know it was you scoundrels, but I did know something.”
“What did you know, Hannah Banana?” asked Michael.
“I knew you weren’t killed. Rico can’t speak violence in any language.”
Monday, 6:25 PM Southwest Chief Amtrak Train, Chicago
“She’s getting off. Should I follow? Not that I know anything about following people.”
“Did you place the microchip?” asked Sandra.
“It’s on her backpack strap. You said it’s good for 24 hours, right? Follow or not?” Cleo stood at the open door of the train, watching Hannah and regretting the fact that it was too late for Cleo to take the whine out of her speech.
“Did she talk to Michael and Rico?”
Cleo grumbled, and that probably answered the question. “I told you I wasn’t a good fit for this. She’s off the train. Follow or not. I need to know.”
“Alright,” said Sandra. “So not even the terrible twosome could get her back. Get off the train. But try not to let her see. It’s late. Let’s give her some space and the night, if we can. She’ll go to a hotel, think things over. Jesus, she is one bitter pill. We should have had her at LAX.”
Cleo glanced out to the station, stepping out as the doors began to close.
“Maybe the fake execution was a bit of over-kill?”
“Much like the pun, Cherie?”
“John Smith shouldn’t have let them go that far.”
“Water under the bridge.”
“Shouldn’t we just tell her the truth?” asked Cleo.
“The truth? Whatever for?”
“Can’t someone just grab her? Wouldn’t that be better than all this…whatever this is?”
“You’d have to ask John Smith,” said Sandra.
“And there’s something in her voice I can’t figure out.”
“You’re doing voices now?”
Cleo watched as Hannah, with her precision pack, her hemmed pants and her downward gaze, walked into the station. Cleo held back, feeling uncertain.
“We’re just going to leave her alone in Mendota, Illinois?”
“You’re sounding maternal, Chérie.”
Monday, 6:35 PM Mendota, Illinois
The worst thing about the United States is choice, and the responsibility of choosing. Hannah had looked at the computer display, with those lovable heads talking at her. She had even responded to them. But when the two scoundrels, the young fellows who had been her work companions ten years back, started telling her what to do, she made the choice to do what she wanted.
She left. Got up from the seat, turned back to the aisle, walked from the coach and exited the train when it stopped at a station a few minutes later. She hadn’t said a word to Young Cleo and had no regrets about that. She also hadn’t answered the plea from the scoundrels, but those two stayed on her mind.
Mendota, Illinois. She hated giving up one of her stops for this place but knew it couldn’t have been avoided. She’d have to confirm a new ticket for tomorrow and find a hotel room. Hannah stepped into the train station, where a sign greeted her stating that Mendota was ‘The Best Little City in the USA’. She rubbed her neck right behind her left ear, trying to ease the pain.
“Is there a hotel close by?” Hannah asked to the back of a woman sorting papers along the counter opposite the ticket booth. The woman turned around, adjusted her vision downward, then stepped to the booth, resting her arms on its top and smiling wide. She accepted Hannah’s Amtrak voucher as she spoke, stamped a portion and passed it back.
“Welcome to Mendota. How are you this evening?”
“Well,” said Hannah. “Is there a hotel close by?”
“Why, sure. We have a Comfort Inn and the Super 8 just down the street. And, of course, we have the very best little Bed and Breakfast just up town. Everyone loves the place.”
The woman at the counter sang her words, letting the vowels swell and the consonants blend. Hannah noticed the urgent superficial happiness of the voice that hid a deep well of pain. Why did she have to know that about a woman she would likely never again see?
“Thank you,” Hannah said.
She picked up the voucher, then turned to the door, hurrying the sundown and the hunger. The ticket, she could figure out later.
“You’re very welcome,” said the woman, “hope you enjoy your stay.”
Hannah heard the last words in tandem with the click of the heavy wooden door. The hotel signs were lighting up as she reached the street, and Hannah began the short walk. A mini-mart pulled her attention. Hannah decided to go inside to purchase an extra pack of handy-wipes. Or two.
At the hotel and well into the second pack of wipes, Hannah continued her housekeeping by sponging down the bottom of her travel bag and placing it on top of the now-clean luggage bench in Room 136 of the Comfort Inn. She brought out her dinner and spread it onto the towel she had placed over the other half of the bench. She pulled the chair over to her meal, placed a hand towel on the seat, inverted each disposable glove off her fingers, dropped them into the waste basket, and fidgeted up onto the seat in front of her food. She pulled her thermos from the side pocket and unscrewed the top, extracted a tea packet from the dinner bag, broke it open and let the tea steep.
Hannah heard a bump in the corridor, and the door of the next room open and close. Someone laughed and another giggled, an interior door banged shut, and she heard water from the tap. A voice spoke. Tight consonants, long on vowels sounds, the voice might have been male or female and the words were not discernible. Hannah listened carefully, enjoying the challenge.
Where had she heard those sounds? The lilt at the end of the sentence, the ever-present question. A young voice, she decided. Nearly teen aged male, like her students, but more polite.
From the bathroom, the water ceased and a woman’s voice made a request. The voices wap-wapped back and forth while Hannah let the sounds grow fuzzy. A rap against the neighbors’ door drew several voices at once, the third voice an adult male. The door opened and shut, then Hannah heard paper bags crackle and cans pop open.
She looked back to her tea with a start, grabbing at it, slipping the bag to the top and squeezing the excess, dropping it into the trash container. She tasted. Bitter. It had steeped too long.
She began her dinner, accompanied by sounds next door. There were the rounded sounds of words being said during a meal, with gulps and smacks that littered the speaking. Hannah heard the inflection of confident English, the casual use of television language, the contraction of words and the interruption of one voice by another. The messy, messy language of family.
Finished with her meal, Hannah folded and stored her dinner bag and took her unfinished tea and the dinner containers to the bathroom along with the toiletries from her bag. She washed the utensils, then showered and dressed for bed. She arranged the clean containers to dry atop a bathroom hand towel, brushed her teeth, washed and rinsed her white shirt and underwear and set them out to dry.
Hannah took the dry face cloth from the bathroom and with it guarding her fingers, carefully folded the bedspread back. She took a folded twin bed sheet from her pack, placed it over the hotel’s bed sheet and pillow, shook off her slippers, peeled back the top layer and lay down, covering herself with her clean sheet before pulling the hotel bedding back on. She folded the cloth and put it on the bedside stand, then turned off the light. Her fingers went to the spot behind her left ear. The sound from the neighbors had been soothed by a television on their opposing wall, and Hannah closed her eyes for sleep.
Monday, 8:20 PM Mendota, Illinois
This was a bed-and-breakfast inn? Cleo had felt a bit of self-congratulating relief when Hannah had walked to the Comfort Inn, leaving Cleo the area’s only ‘B&B’ for her night’s rest.
Now, settling into her room, ‘Anabelle’s Blue Heaven’ she wished for the drab, steady, predictable scene of an American budget motel.
This room had competing air freshener scents coming off the light blue flowered pillow shams, the dark blue flowered bed spread, the cornflower blue canopy, the turquoise flowered curtain and the multi-hued carpet. Carpet? Cleo had never given a thought to paisley in a hotel room carpet and wondered how many stains it hid.
She raised her eyes to study the one window’s curtain. Plural, she decided: curtains. There was a ruffled outer sash and a ruffled inner sash. There was a chintz panel and a sheer panel and behind all that, Cleo found a blue patterned shade, pulled down.
So many layers to keep all those germs inside the room. Cleo looked unhappily at her insufficient overnight bag and wondered where was the nearest Nuxe toiletries store. Probably Chicago. Maybe not even there.
Monday, 11:50 PM Mendota, Illinois
“Oh, hell, no,” said a male voice, loud, so loud that Hannah woke, confused by sleep.
She heard a rustling and some grumbles from her neighbors, and remembered where she was; but the loud voice, a new one, continued from outside in the corridor along to the opposite room.
“Well, I know, babe, I just don’t see a way for it to work.”
Hannah heard the murmured response of a soft voice, but she could not distinguish the words. The large man’s voice continued, as loud as if the world needed to hear.
“Just how do they expect a big galloot like me to fit this tiny little card into the smallest slot ever made?”
“No, babe, you’re right. You’re right. I’ll try it the other which way.” Hannah heard some fumbling. A door rattled. “Oh, hell, no.”
The murmur soothed, again, and Hannah wished she could hear that second voice. Hannah sat up, bringing her sheet with her against the headrest. She listened to the man.
“Well, isn’t there a light should go on? I’ll try’er again.”
“Texas,” Hannah said, as if giving an answer in a game show, then continued listening to the big man with the bellowing voice.
“Well, hell, darlin’, they make ‘em bigger where we’re from, I know they do.” A murmur. “No, babe, it ain’t because it’s late and I’m tired.”
Hannah pulled her knees to her chest, continuing her game. “More west than central, he’s got that loopy twang, clobbers those endings. College or not, there is no way to tell with Texans.”
The murmur made a plea, then the man responded. “Yes, Ma’am, I expect you’re right. You give’er a try.”
“Not a Mexican accent,” said Hannah, “not even several generations past. Big, blustering, and full of the truth.”
Hannah heard a booming cheer from the corridor, a door opening, and the man again.
“Just like a princess makin’ a wish, and every door up and opens.”
The murmur responded. Then the man from West Texas again.
“And, darlin’, it’s not that late and I’m not that tired.”
“Fort Stockton,” said Hannah, as the couple used the walls to balance their entry into the hotel room next door.
Hannah folded back the bed sheets, crawled the length of the bed, pulled her earphones and nearly-ancient MP3 player from her pack, reversed her movements and listened to Elton John’s Aida while she waited for sleep. She thought there was one thing missing from her sleuthing out the loud voice. Before Sting finished his version of ‘Another Pyramid’, she knew what it was.
Now that she had once again let the voices in, she had no one to tell her successes to. She didn’t have the companionship of the scoundrels, Michael and Rico. Or anyone else.
Tuesday, 7:50 AM Princeton near Mendota, Illinois
“Listen, Clyde. I hardly slept. I’m not in the right time zone. I haven’t had breakfast because renting a car is supposed to be easy, and there should have been time to eat after. But because it hasn’t been easy, Clyde, now I won’t have time to eat. I can’t find cell-phone reception in this town, a fact I know because I believe I’ve walked every inch of it. I don’t want an upgrade. I don’t want a red Mustang with a moon roof. I want a non-descript compact. One with as many miles on the odometer as possible.”
“I can do that,” said Clyde. “But the upgrade is free, and the Mustang is only $50.00 more, mileage included.”
Good God, the clerk was more irritating than the odd-fitting change of clothing that Cleo had purchased at Max’s General Store.
“Here is my charge card, here is my license. Give me a basic car now. No upgrade. No Mustang.”
Cleo left the building assured that car #67893220 was directly behind in the lot. She could only hope that the map Clyde had promised would be in the glove, because in Princeton, Illinois, one did not count on the availability of cell towers. Maybe not for 100 miles in any direction.
Tuesday, 7:55 AM Mendota, Illinois
Hannah woke and packed. She checked out of her room at the main desk, inquired about hot water for her tea and was directed to the near-by sideboard. She viewed the complimentary continental breakfast. What this nation knew about continental could fit onto the tiny napkin she picked up. Hannah pocketed an apple, an orange, a peanut butter tub-ette, crackers and three tea bags.
The summertime crush of tourists had not found their way to Mendota, Illinois. The beginning of humidity had. As Hannah walked through the motel’s parking lot, she glanced at the cars, noting the absence of visitors, the three white or near-white American-made compacts, and the one beat-up truck whose driver wore a cone-shaped woven straw hat. A Mendota statement of style? She looked onto the street, counting five vehicles within sight, figuring that five was exactly one car more than the usual count.
Cleo’s ride she spotted immediately: the nondescript vehicle rented purposefully to blend-in on any middle-class American curb. Cleo had parked her compact across the street from the motel, far enough away that she might have been attempting to disguise herself, but close enough to be friendly. Smart move on Young Cleo’s part. Now they were playing a game.
With John Smith and Associates, it was always a game, and this one Hannah knew. Moreover, they knew she knew. Certain she was meant to see the car, and certain they did not know what her reaction would be – flight or fight or surrender – she paused. Did they have a counter-offer, an anticipated outcome, a reaction if Hannah could manage to evade them? She evidently had not put them off after her departure from the train, so she discounted that option as wasted time.
Hannah walked toward Cleo’s car, beginning to reconcile some elements of her past into the present. She ignored her curiosity to question why they were seeking her. The fact that JSA was expending this effort explained every necessary detail. They needed her, simple as that.
Who would ever know a firm called ‘John Smith and Associates’ dealt largely in international threat assessment? Perhaps the name was meant to be discrete, but Hannah would have preferred a more direct nomenclature. Why not ‘International Threat Assessment’? Descriptive, honest. Even the abbreviation, JSA, had always seemed a bit of a waste. It meant nothing about their work.
When she’d first been hired, she had felt lost in the world, and stunned that any profitable firm would want her talents. She had thought that her constant scrutiny of language was a secret to be hidden, an infinite flaw. John Smith saw it as an asset.
Hannah could easily identify lies, threatening tones and regional accents in eight languages. She had felt less at ease listening to voices on the streets, but she was just as effective. In fact, there was something about the immediacy of the street voices that percolated her interest.
Eventually, she had become comfortable in her office in Panamá City, Panamá, listening to voices that the scoundrels had procured. Were the offices still in the same place? Was that why they had arranged the current passport? Ten years had passed, and if the pain had faded, it was hard to tell. Still, she decided she could do one small favor for the scoundrels here in Mendota. She would help her young former companions, then go on her way.
As Hannah approached the car, Cleo smiled and rolled down her window. Cooled air seeped out.
“I deliberated,” said Hannah, “and, in a spirit of cooperation, decided to help. I’m sure I’ll see you soon.”
Before Cleo could respond, Hannah turned around and began walking back across the street. Each step took her farther out of reach of Cleo’s repetitive Iowa voice calling out her plea.
Tuesday, 8:20 AM Mendota, Illinois
Her finger poised over the phone.
She did not want to call Sandra, did not want to ask again for guidance, but what else could she do?
Cleo did not have a clue how to deal with this difficult woman, Hannah. True, she had written about her, analyzed her, researched her, but somehow, with this woman, the sum of the parts on paper was so much less than the reality. Hannah was like no one Cleo had ever come across.
She pressed ‘call’. Then waited and waited. Sandra did not answer.
Tuesday, 8:23 AM Mendota, Illinois
When Hannah reached the beat-up truck, she tapped on the passenger’s door. It was opened from the inside. Hannah reached up to the handle and pulled herself into the seat, ignoring the fact that her legs dangled and that her supply of handy-wipes was quite low. She turned to the driver, whose straw hat covered his head of youthful geek-like hair.
“You didn’t have permission to take my photograph,” Hannah said.
The geek didn’t smile. He grinned. From ear to ear, he grinned a smile of youth, delight and competitiveness with a bit of wicked thrown in. He took off the hat and shook out his hair.
“Didn’t even have a ghost of suspicion at the airport, did you?”
“Not for a minute,” said Hannah.
“And the truck.” He patted the dashboard. “Better than Cleo’s, right? It belongs here.”
“Hers belongs anywhere, but you’re right. Yours belongs here, in Mendota. Still, I picked you out.”
“I hear you already met up with the stars of the video?”
She was hungry for his voice, the very slight Spanish influence teasing her. More south than Mexico, she thought. But what was that extra trill in his ‘L’ sound?
He had used a well-done cover voice in the airport. Clever. He spoke with the sharp precision of someone versed in languages, Spanish and English in this young man’s case, with some close neighbors as well: Italian, French and possibly German, Hannah guessed. His skin glowed with a deep golden tone, but Hannah had learned not to rely on such superficial clues for nationality. That information was always in the voice, the spoken word.
“I have been hearing about your adventures for a while now. I am a fan, believe me. My name is Carlos, Ms. Antrim. Ms. Black? Meeting you is an honor.”
“Pleasure is mine. Please call me Hannah.”
“Hannah it is.”
“You study languages, don’t you, Carlos?”
“I am most definitely not in your league with the languages, but I hear some call me the Phantom, so I guess I have my place.” He continued his sideways smile. Carlos was going to be fun. He looked past Hannah through the rear window. “Maybe we’ll have time for stories later on.”
Cleo appeared at the window. Hannah rolled it down.
“That was fast, Young Cleo,” she said.
“Next to you, Ms. Antrim, no one can call me fast.”
“Feeling a bit fish-out-of-water?”
Carlos lifted his hands from the wheel, and in a replay of his airport voice, said, “I’ll just stay out of this.” He had his smile under control, but barely, as he glanced at each rear-view mirror in turn.
“Dear girl,” said Hannah. “I’ve already agreed to help. Just tell me what I need to do. And remember, I have a 30-day Amtrak pass, so the sooner we get this done, the better. My vacation won’t wait long. The passport was a nice idea, but unnecessary. John Smith has always been presumptuous about travel. I assume the scoundrels have gotten themselves into a dubious spot and need some help.”
Hannah looked hard at the young woman. Carlos tapped his fingers on the steering wheel. Cleo kneaded her lip and thrummed. Hannah preferred to interpret voices and intonation, even word choice. At times, especially word choice. This exchange was filled with unspoken words. Hannah used her best strategy for classic non-verbal communication: she waited.
“I am very glad you decided to talk,” said Cleo. Hannah waited as Young Cleo glanced nervously at Carlos. “A conversation will clear all this up. Please believe me.”
It had all been script, up to the last phrase. There had been a plea in that last phrase that startled Hannah. Why would Cleo feel it necessary to plead with her? Why did she continue to look at Carlos, then quickly away? She let the younger woman continue.
“Perhaps we can go back to my car and talk.”
“Car?” said Hannah. “Why should we need a car? Aren’t you going to use one of your gadgets and let me speak with the boys?”
“Of course, of course, we may do that. But first we should set up a game plan.”
“A game plan. Young Cleo, just remember that I worked the same business you are working, and I know when you are giving me a story line instead of the truth. Which is not a surprise to me, just an irritation. You are more convincing when you don’t lie. May I have the truth, please?”
“It’s really all for your benefit. If you will just come with me, I can explain better.”
“Without dear Carlos? Why isn’t he included?”
She looked to the geek.
“Best leave me out,” he said. “It’s my usual state.”
Neither of her new companions was making eye contact, with each other or with Hannah herself. Suddenly, simple Mendota had their full attention. Hannah may have been readjusting to skills she had forgotten she knew, but the effort of all the back-and-forth began suddenly to wear upon her. Such double-talk. Such subterfuge. Even seventh grade hadn’t been so full of deception.
“Rico and Michael looked quite well last night. What could be wrong? What help do they need?” asked Hannah.
“Truly, we intend to be a help to you.” Cleo looked to the geek. “Isn’t that right, Carlos?”
Carlos nodded, but kept his various accents to himself as he scanned the landscape of Mendota, Illinois.
Hannah couldn’t put the puzzle of the two of them, her former employer, and the scoundrels together. It simply did not fit, and something unsaid began troubling her. She had offered her assistance. She hadn’t offered to enter into a game plan, whatever that might be. And she certainly wasn’t going to use any passport, even her own. Where had her planned vacation gone?
“Well,” Hannah said, “you two can get your stories together while I replenish my travel supplies.”
Hannah opened the truck door, stepped down onto the asphalt, and let Cleo stare after her for the second time in ten minutes. This time the Iowa voice was silent. What were they going to do? Take her into custody? John Smith and his associates’ authority did not extend that far, as Hannah well understood.
Tuesday, 8:32 AM Mendota, Illinois
Cleo had first noticed the strange man as she spoke to Hannah at her car across the street. He stood out simply because he made no attempt to blend in. Mendota, Illinois could identify outsiders just as easily as Marion, Iowa.
“Do you think she saw him, Carlos? You’ve been watching him this entire time.”
“Hard not to. He must be the one.”
“But do you think she saw him?”
“Hard to know. She was pretty much focused on you and me.”
“Don’t you think we should just deal with the man? He can’t be as difficult as Hannah. What’s he going to do to us out in the open like this? Can’t we just talk to him?”
“Not my call.”
“Not your call. Not Sandra’s call. And where, may I ask, is John Smith? Not here, evidently. You’d think that if the man over there was going to do anything immediately dangerous, he would have done it already.”
“Let’s wait for Hannah to get her things. When she comes out, we’ll explain.”
“Explain what? She doesn’t want to come with me. And that’s all I know to do. I say we talk to the guy. JSA doesn’t deal in real danger, just the threat of danger. Oh, dear Jesus, I am so out of my comfort zone.”
“Sounds like someone didn’t get her usual good night’s sleep.”
“How would you know what my usual night’s sleep is? We’ve never met before.”
“You’re that Cleo chick.”
“Oh. Comment about my name, just go right ahead. But if you really want a laugh, look at yourself with that cornfield hat, Maynard.”
“Cleo’s a good name, just curious…”
“And now I’m feeling guilty because everyone I know named Maynard has been a really decent guy.”
“And I’m not?”
Cleo took a step back, glanced over the hood of the truck, searching again for the man.
“I’m not trained for this. Following her in the airport for a short time is one thing. A lurking man dressed in winter clothes in the humid Midwest summer? What am I supposed to do about that? How long is this escapade going to last? I keep hoping someone will tell me it’s all a set-up to shame me for never doing any street-work.”
“I hear you like your writing,” said Carlos. “In your clean office.”
“Let’s call Sandra. She can decide.”
“Sounds like plan.”
“The airport was all a set-up,” said Cleo. “This could be, too.”
“I wouldn’t get your hopes up.”
“Wait. I don’t see him. Where’d he go?”
Tuesday, 8:35 AM Mendota, Illinois
Never re-think a well-thought-out decision, she reminded herself as she walked toward the mini-mart; never make a decision based on emotion. Think an idea through, decide on a course of action, lay out detailed plans and follow them to their conclusion.
That lifestyle had served her well for ten years, until last night, when Hannah had changed her mind and decided to help the scoundrels. But there was something wrong with that, and Carlos and Cleo had told her so, not in the words she understood, but in the body language that at times confounded her. How could she reclaim her vacation? That was her plan: a slow train trip back to Los Angeles.
The train station was very close to the convenience store. It tempted Hannah. Neither Cleo nor Carlos had followed her. In fact, as she left the truck, they had seemed so blasé – Carlos with his smile and Cleo with her distraction. Hannah had almost wondered if she might be irrelevant.
Well, no, she thought. They wouldn’t have followed her from the airport if they hadn’t needed her. But something had changed, or some issue she did not understand had inserted itself into the landscape of her involvement with her former employer. She reached the mini-mart and picked up a basket as she entered.
JSA was not a government agency, though they had some contract work for various governments. The majority of their work came from international firms attempting to make security decisions regarding their employees. Could they live safely abroad? What should they do in the event of a kidnapping? And then, Hannah’s specialty: how could these firms work around the ever-present threat of terrorism?
Her affiliation was ten years past. Whatever pull the company had on Hannah came in the face Rico and the voice of Michael. She wouldn’t mind helping them, but she didn’t need a re-entrance into a complicated life.
Hannah had worked hard to achieve simplicity. Rico and Michael were not simple on their best days. And they were happy and healthy, as Hannah had heard in their voices when they talked on the train. Simple living: she needed to slip away from this situation and get back to her plan.
The larger economy pack of handy-wipes seemed a good idea. Hannah dropped one into the basket, considered the size and weight of her pack, then added two of the smaller travel-sized packets. Then she paused as a voice caught her attention; a man spoke in an undertone, perhaps into a cell phone.
The voice was so low as to blend in with the air conditioner and the whoosh of people in and out the door. It held an unusual slur in the syllables here, an unexpected stress in a phrase there. It was always like this for her. Hannah heard all the vocal sounds around her, but it took such effort to sort out the important ones from the ones that she could safely let go. Until, on rare occasions, the truly evil voice sounded. That voice was easy to identify; it also brought the intense pain of recognition. And so she had invented the hum.
The hum helped her function. She wouldn’t get distracted by each phoneme uttered by every individual. With the hum, she had a filter between herself and the ever-present drumming of syllabic patter; she had a shield between herself and trouble. But Hannah had lost the hum.
The man’s voice continued in a soft smear of sound that Hannah could not ignore. If she could get closer, she could distinguish the words and perhaps understand the meaning. What was in that voice? She walked to the end of the aisle, pulled a bottle of juice from the refrigerator.
If she had not met up with the team from JSA, would she be considering following a strange man in a convenience store just to hear him speak? She thought of her travel plans, so carefully laid, and kept the slur of sound behind her as she headed to the front of the store. Then she was at the check-out stand, with one person in front of her and other vocalizations became distinguishable.
“This be it for you today, Frank?” asked the clerk, friendly, relaxed.
“Yes, that’s about as much damage as the wallet allows,” said the local man.
Another customer came in the door. A woman joined the line behind Hannah. A man strolled among the few aisles of the mini-mart speaking to a young child. The door jingled again, then whooshed closed as two voices added to the mix already inside the store. The woman behind Hannah began to speak to her in lazy, untroubled fluff. The man in front concluded his transaction, the clerk spoke a greeting, and Hannah sought the hum. Where was it?
Sounds everywhere, with that unusual cadence pulling her attention, and the more immediate need to concentrate on the clerk’s words; it all added up to a cluster of utterances that required her attention, every one of them vital and demanding and timely.
Sounds had swirled around her since LAX without a moment’s peace. Even her sleep had been interrupted with a call to listen. Hannah breathed deep, tucked her chin, brought out her coin purse, offered a bill, clutched the handy-wipes and juice, and collected the change. She focused on the tile squares of the floor and wondered how she would ever call back the hum if she wasn’t able to do it at the handy-wipe store.
Quiet. She needed silence. She needed to be on a seat in one car of a long train heading west. The rhythmic clip of the train’s wheels against the track would be just distant enough to pretend to be a hum. She could be alone with her pack of necessities and her plans.
Without looking up, Hannah walked to the back of the store, through the small passageway and out the open rear door. She retraced the path she had taken the day before, heading for the train station.
The sad woman with the happy voice looked up when Hannah walked in.
“Connection west, please,” said Hannah. She lifted her bag to the counter and allowed her fingers to press behind her left ear.
“Good morning. I thought you’d be back today. Just passing through, right?”
“Next connection west?”
“Oh, it’s a long wait for your same train. Now, if you’d like, you can take the local bus to St. Louis or Kansas City – same as Amtrak, you know – and get a connection there. Lots of trains through Kansas City.”
“The bus? Well, it’s about ready to load up right out there in the back lot. Can I get you a ticket?”
“I’ll just need to validate it on your Amtrak pass. Easy as pie.”
At that remark, Hannah looked up. If there was one thing she knew about baking, it was that pies were never easy.
Tuesday, 8:40 AM Mendota, Illinois
“She thinks it’s only for a day, maybe just an hour or two,” said Cleo.
“Well, don’t tell her otherwise, Chérie.”
“Carlos says he saw someone following. I think I saw the same man. He didn’t seem to belong here.”
“Carlos has been helpful so far, but with the three of you together in a public place, that’s just too much exposure. If someone else is following her, then they will surely know about Carlos. He can’t be this visible from here out. It’s too much of a risk.”
“Carlos says she knows every word she hears. Every language.”
“Carlos says. Why are you so impressed with jeune Carlos? You’ve been doing as much as he has.”
“Is that a compliment? No, it’s not a compliment. You want me to stay in this and you are placating me. How do I convince Hannah to come with me without offering any details? She’s really smart, Sandra. Really, really odd, but really smart.”
“It wasn’t supposed to get this far.”
“And I can’t quite place her accent. Is that on purpose?”
“She shouldn’t have gotten past us at LAX.”
“And what about the guy following her?” asked Cleo.
“We were going to resolve all this in the airport, then at the station, then on the train. I’ve half a mind to just let her go, and she can deal with these people herself.”
“Who are these people? I was just supposed to follow her in the airport. And now look at me. Mendota, Illinois? Should I be concerned?”
“We’ll just have to pull you both in. Get her in the car, Cleo. It’s a short distance to Chicago. Call me back when you get to the airport there.”
“You say that like it’s a simple thing. ‘Get her in the car.’ I need to give her a reason, tell her something. Something convincing.”
“Well, Chérie, don’t tell her the Ukrainians want her. We don’t know how she will react. Perhaps she’d like the idea,” said her boss.
“Ukrainians? You never mentioned Ukrainians.”
Tuesday, 8:50 AM outside Mendota, Illinois
Riding a bus to Kansas City certainly seemed as American as a vacation could be. As American as apple pie? As long as it wasn’t called easy, Hannah could concede that over-used expression. She sat toward the back of the bus, hoping to have the double seat to herself. The idling engines geared up, the driver closed the door and the extra seat was hers – at least for the first leg of the trip.
She pulled out the schedule and followed the route with her finger. There would be frequent stops, one a lunch break in St. Louis. The clerk at the train station hadn’t mentioned the longer route, but immediate escape was what Hannah had needed and the bus had provided. With ten hours ahead of her, Hannah settled in.
She cleansed the armrest, the neck rest, the window ledge, her hands. She pulled her pack onto the aisle seat next to her, unzipped the top compartment, reached for her lunch bag with the American idea of a continental breakfast. She spread a napkin on her lap, uncapped her thermos and gave thanks that she had steeped the bag for only two minutes in the hotel while checking out. Hannah breathed in pungent bergamot. The tea was hot and calming.
The other passengers seemed in a quiet mood. The tall modern seat backs maintained a sense of privacy that Hannah appreciated. Perhaps people conversed somewhere in the bus, but if Hannah couldn’t hear over the sounds of the engine, she didn’t have to care. Just to ensure this wonderful peacefulness, she fished out her ear plugs and enjoyed her solitude and her orange.
The Midwest landscape filled her window and Hannah settled into her vacation. This was what she had planned. Simple food, simple sights, silence.
Outside of Mendota, Hannah noticed the grasslands laying themselves over acres of flat land, hundreds of acres, with no break except for a barn every now and again. Three types of barns were framed by her window: the busy, functioning barn, the newly-empty and sad-looking barn, and the long-unused barn with its beams ready to fall and the roof sagging at various angles. Hannah preferred the latter.
The first break came in an unnamed town. Of course, the place had a name, but since Hannah was enjoying her repose, she stayed in her seat, kept her earplugs in place, sipped the last of her tea, and never even thought to reach her toe down to the floor for leverage to stretch up and read the name off the station greeting sign.
As the passengers returned to the bus, they seemed to Hannah more boisterous. Through her earplugs she could hear syllables of excitement, words and parts of sentences and those provocative Midwest sounds for the letter ‘a’.
She heard someone talking about food in Spanish, then another asking about the bus route in the Arabic of Mediterranean North Africa. But more than any other, she heard spoken English – Midwestern English, English with a western twang, proper and improper English. In the space of a few minutes, through the filter of her earplugs, she could feel her tranquil mood begin to dissipate.
She traded her earplugs for the noise-canceling headphones and let music fill the space in her mind where sound always lay. She would have a choice over what she heard, and allow the tranquility of her day to continue. She touched the sensitive place behind her ear as the Gypsy Mandolin gave a perfect scratching of the clearest note she’d ever heard.
Out the window, Hannah noticed the water towers that punctuated every new town they passed by. People seemed proud of them. Some were decorated with the area’s crop: corn, wheat, soy. Or the town’s mascot, a whimsical representation of a pirate or a bird of prey, presumably borrowed from their high school or middle school. Every one of the towers announced the name of their town: Peru, Oglesby, Wenona.
Hannah pictured herself climbing up the painted metal ladder to the scaffolded walkway that surrounded the bulb of the tower. She thought of the view from that vantage point, how the land would lose even the slight variation that could be seen from the roadway. The sprawl of the plain would be a mirage of flat earth; the crevice of the ditches and small creeks would appear like a slight change in color, the mound of a small hill might become altogether invisible. Up high on the water tower, surrounded by metal and wood, she could escape from the noise of people speaking to each other, and therefore, from her own need to respond.
At Normal, Illinois, Hannah left the bus for a break to stretch her legs and use the restroom. She purchased a pack of Cheez-its and a club soda. She kept her headphones on, pretending to listen to the music, but in reality, she was using them as the hum she had not yet reclaimed. She could keep inside her cocoon of peace, and no one could interrupt her. As they turned from heading south on Route 39 to heading west on 70, their last leg toward St. Louis, Hannah allowed her eyes to close as she gave in to the ultimate consequence of quiet: sleep.
Tuesday, 9:10 AM Mendota, Illinois
Where was Hannah? Carlos and Cleo had waited for her to reappear through the front doors of the mini-mart. Certainly, she would have to come out that way. But she hadn’t.
Carlos had gone searching for her and Cleo had stayed by his truck and fretted. She had not even been away from home for two full days, but she felt strung out and trampled. She hadn’t packed for this kind of trip. She did not have her personal computer with its stored bookmarks and passwords. She did not have enough balm for her hair. She did not have her journal or her hand cream or her cucumber eye gel.
Most of all, she did not have control. There was no schedule to follow, no rules to learn. She didn’t know enough about this part of the job to ask intelligent questions and no one, aside from the inscrutable Carlos, to ask them to. Who had control over this venture? Not Cleo herself, not Carlos, certainly. Not Sandra, nor, it seemed, The Man himself. JS did not even seem to be giving any direction. Cleo was on her own in a place far from her comfortable life.
Could she just walk away? Was it time? Could she leave this muddle and walk back into her old life in Marion? Did she want to retreat?
She saw Carlos coming back from the far side of the mini-mart. He walked, but not rapidly, not as if there was any reason to hurry, not as if there was any good news. Maybe not any news at all. He stopped at the drivers’ side of the truck, stuck his happy face through the open window.
“She got on the bus,” he said, almost smiling, almost hopeful at the thought of Hannah resuming her journey. Almost ready to follow her anywhere.
Cleo held the bridge of her nose, pressed against the pressure point of her third eye. Unbelievable. Hannah had slipped through her fingers again.
Tuesday, 11:05 AM southern Illinois, USA
A spoken word intruded. Vocal, exotic, melodic.
She did not know the meaning of the sound, and fully woke at the shock. Her earphones had slipped during her nap, and the sound had entered her consciousness. How long had it been since she had listened to a word, a complete identifiable word, but not understood something about it? She could not count the years. Even if she didn’t know an exact meaning, she could always make a good guess: French to Spanish, Italian to Romanian, Hindi to Sanskrit.
Again. Clearer this time, the spoken word shimmered from several rows ahead of hers in the bus. Hannah recognized the voice. The smear of sound was nearer now than in the handy-wipe store, and Hannah could distinguish phonemes and sound groups. But the language itself was elusive. Or was it familiar? She wanted to believe so, but that may just have been her vanity reacting to a new idiom.
The masculine voice spoke into a phone, or at least spoke without a vocal partner that Hannah could hear.
One person speaking sounds just outside her grasp – it pulled Hannah’s attention and challenged her. There was an entwined quality to the words. She had difficulty deciding where one word ended and another began. It was a puzzle to distinguish, this slur of sounds. She needed to give meaning to this voice.
The excitement from the other passengers had receded since their last station stop. Things in the bus had quieted. Hannah could concentrate on just this one-sided conversation. How long would it take her to study the cadence of these words? The speaker used low tones and whispered his thoughts. The lure of the speech pulled at her. She sat up and leaned forward.
He used his throat as he spoke. Hannah heard the tightening of his larynx as if he was wringing out his epiglottis from a good washing. Similar to Russian, she thought, but not quite. Hannah had never bothered to become proficient in Russian since so many others had tackled that perplexing tongue. She enjoyed a challenge, but couldn’t see the advantage to learn the language, even one so appealing. Then, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the array of Eastern European languages had called to her but she had been concentrating on Hebrew, Arabic and Sanskrit at the time.
The speaker’s words shushed and coughed. Where had she heard those sounds?
She listened to the soft patter of connected syllables, curiously foreign, tentatively familiar. Hannah lusted after every word. Each syllable begged her attention, pled with her to listen and learn the unaccustomed sounds, so exotic to her English-worn ears. Where had she heard the spoken partners to these sounds? Besides the handy-wipe store, where was home for this conversation?
It was a place more western than Russia, she thought. Its language had changed, leaning toward Europe, when Russian had stayed stubbornly apart. A place Americans don’t often think about, but one that pays close attention to Europeans and Western life. Hannah heard some of that in the voice, she was sure. This language’s home was a place not so much forgotten by Westerners, but one that had yet to be discovered by them. A complex language, sounds from a completely divergent phonetic ancestry than American English.
Hannah sat straight, breathed in sharp excitement. She knew. She was certain. She had figured out the birthplace of the voice.
“He’s Ukrainian,” she said.
Then she smiled in congratulations and began to listen for the meaning behind the words. It was all theoretical. But Hannah knew so many connections between languages, even if she had never been to the country, she could link the usage of sound, and trace it back to places she had never been. She hadn’t used this skill in years and was excited she still possessed it.
By the time the bus entered the outskirts of St. Louis, the other passengers had roused themselves, and Hannah had learned seven hundred and forty-eight words in the exotic Ukrainian language.
Tuesday, 12:05 PM maybe Missouri, USA
The intensity of the headache surprised her. Perhaps it was the dust in the Midwest air; perhaps the lack of sleep. Cleo didn’t want to think that it might be a stress headache.
What if, instead of just a lack of experience, what if she simply couldn’t do this work? What if, after investing five years in John Smith and Associates, she would never become an associate? Cleo would remain a side-show, never able to do anything but write reports about what other people did.
A stress headache – that would be the likely result of this type of thinking. What if she just didn’t have what it took? Cleo had been able to ignore this part of the work until now, when she realized that even Hannah, odd little Hannah, had what it took.
She had been trying to get a phone call through to Sandra for hours. No-coverage zones seemed to find Cleo every time she reached for her cell phone. Finally, Sandra answered her call.
“She took the bus,” Cleo said, then waited, as she knew that Sandra would not scream or shout. Sandra would collect herself, then relay instructions in tight well-chosen words, without the usual banter, because her boss, like Hannah, had skills that Cleo did not.
“Hhhnnmmm,” said Sandra.
If she couldn’t see her boss’ physical reaction, Cleo wished Sandra’s response had been in a more reliable word form.
“Good God, Sandra. I haven’t been trained for this. Follow Hannah Antrim. That was my only instruction. And now I am lost in god-only-knows where Missouri.”
“I had thought that the scoundrels were our safeties.”
“Maybe not even Missouri. I’ve been following Ms. Antrim’s bus for hours. What do you want me to do?” asked Cleo.
“The bus? West on the Amtrak connection. Maybe St. Louis?”
“The microchip still working?”
“Yes. I need to stop for gas.”
“We’re in this far, I’m sure John Smith will have us continue,” said Sandra.
“What if she gets off again in the middle of nowhere? I couldn’t find a public gas station at the last stop,” said Cleo.
“What the hell do I know about the middle of nowhere?”
“I’ve been to St. Louis. If she gets that far, I assume it’s a long break there at Union Station.”
“What the hell do I know about Union Station, St Louis? If she’s still working off her Amtrak ticket, we can only hope she’ll follow their route. Call back when you get there. I’ll have your instructions.”
“What about Carlos? He drove off in that beat-up truck like he knew where he was going. What does he know that I don’t?”
“Don’t worry about Carlos.”
“I’m not worried about him. But shouldn’t we have stuck together? He didn’t seem to think so.”
“He has a different concern than we do.”
“What about the Ukrainians you failed to mention before I left for LA?”
Cleo tested the heat on her forehead with the back of her hand.
“No worries there,” said Sandra. “I’ve got them under control. They’ll be fine. It will all be fine.”
“Fine. It’s all fine.”
“And, Chérie, not everyone starts with difficulties in the field, but they always come along from time to time.”
Relief from her boss’s comment welled in Cleo’s chest, and she held herself tight so that it would not pour out in the form of a sigh, or more likely, a sob. “Thank you for saying that, Sandra.”
“Then let me say this also. You need to find a way in with this woman, a way to make yourself important or necessary. The scoundrels did it over time, but time is something you don’t have.”
Just as Cleo began to feel the headache lift, it crashed right back down.
Tuesday, 12:40 PM St. Louis, Missouri
How could she prolong this lesson? As skilled as she was in hearing and translating languages, she was not at all skilled in speaking them. Most people – uninformed people -expected that speaking and understanding words were twins, born together and forever linked.
But it was not true. Learning to speak a new language, the ever-appealing verbal expression of the words that Hannah could hear and understand, took time and attention. Perhaps because the understanding of words she heard was a gift, something she could never explain nor teach to another person, the ability to speak held a value she admired. It was a product of some effort, related to Hannah’s language learning, but somehow an extension that tested her skills.
Hannah yearned for the aptitude of the spoken word. Now that she had in her mind a fair vocabulary, how could she hurry the learning curve climb of speaking Ukrainian?
As the passengers exited the bus for the lunch stop in St. Louis, Hannah kept her eyes on the man with the Ukrainian words. It was tougher keeping track of him than it was to learn this new language.
She sidled toward the station, glancing at the series of spires and then the impossibly high tower, noticing the stained-glass roof line with metallic bracing that called to her in a way that the water towers hadn’t. Inside the building, past the sign designating the station as a historic landmark, she paused by a gift shop as the man stood outside Nestlé’s Tollhouse Café. He then turned abruptly and walked to a disused bank of credit card phones. Hannah’s hope rallied.
She coveted a phone conversation. But why would he be using a public telephone and not his cell phone? Using neither, the man turned quickly and headed toward the schedule board. Keeping her head down and her eyes averted, but still focused on the man, Hannah followed. If he met up with a companion, she could hear two versions of the same exotic language. He turned again, however, and without a companion, headed toward the Amtrak ticket counter.
She looked up at his movement and nearly felt their eyes connect, but forced hers to continue past, disinterested, scanning, neutral. She had a choice to make: vacation or new language? Hannah decided to follow him with more protection, pretending to study the timetables, while watching the man’s reflection in the glass overlay of the scheduling board.
But the man seemed undecided. He soon left the counter to wander to a display of best-sellers set out in front of Gateway News. Maybe she could begin a conversation. Even his accented English could teach her inflection and word preference, referring her back to his native language.
Someone spoke English directly behind her, and someone else Spanish to her left. Hannah, with effort, ignored those familiar, mundane utterances, and focused on the man. She wanted dearly to hear again that catch in the back of the throat, so similar to Russian, but with an easy-to-miss thinning-out of sound or intensity. Why didn’t he speak on his phone again?
As their eyes nearly met a second time, Hannah decided it best to keep her distance. Since the man was clearly by himself, and silent, she was risking nothing in terms of her language learning. Hannah looked at the large clock, evaluating the time left for the station break, and made her way to Einstein’s Bagels to replenish her food supplies.
Through the long and wide windows, she kept one eye on the Ukrainian while purchasing a vegetable juice, a bagel with cream cheese, and one hot tea. With that much to accomplish, other syllables and sounds became background noise, even a man next to her humming ‘Historia de un Amor‘.
She moved up in line, placing her order, then paying, and finally picking up her food. She balanced the food bag with the juice, still keeping tabs on the Ukrainian. When her tea was placed before her, Hannah paused for a split second, wondering how to best balance her purchases. A young hand reached to her tea, and an Alabama voice spoke.
“Allow me to help you, ma’am.”
The humming had stopped, and as Hannah looked up to protest another person taking her tea, she focused on a familiar face speaking in yet another accent.
“Why, Carlos, you continue to surprise.”
He had a red sports team watch cap that covered his hair, and sunglasses like every other tourist. He had changed from jeans and tee shirt to tan shorts with a pastel buttoned short sleeved shirt. Hannah would not have recognized him, perhaps, except for the smile and wink.
They walked together out the bagel shop door.
“I shall give you back your tea, if you let me give you some advice.” His newest accent carried the optimism of youth and a crisp humor, but in Carlos’ voice Hannah heard caution as well.
“You must already know I’m not always good at following advice.”
She had placed herself facing the Ukrainian man, who had strolled along the opposite line of shops, stopping occasionally. Hannah placed her bagel and juice into her backpack. Carlos held out her tea in an offering gesture, facing away from the other man’s sight. The slight nod Carlos made toward the Ukrainian seemed the movement of a polite young southern gentleman.
“His name is Anton Smirnov. He doesn’t always tell the truth.”
“You are very appealing, Carlos. But surely you know that, even if he is Anton Smirnov, if he doesn’t always tell the truth, he is like everyone else on earth.”
Hannah reached for the tea and turned away without asking how the young man had found her and why it was necessary he should. She took one last look at the sky-high stained-glass ceilings, for one more moment searched for the Ukrainian, then began to retrace her steps to the bus.
She had another piece of the puzzle. The Ukrainian was known to JSA. Was Hannah known to him?
Tuesday, 12:50 PM St. Louis, Missouri
What the hell was the weird woman doing? Cleo thumbed her phone, and hardly looking, placed a call to Sandra, who answered at the first tone. Cleo spoke over her boss’ opening words.
“Sandra, I can hardly explain what this odd, odd little woman is up to.”
“Where are you?”
“It just doesn’t seem possible, but I swear to God in Heaven, Hannah is absolutely, completely, without doubt zooming in on that man from Mendota, Illinois. Remember I mentioned him?”
“You’re still in Mendota?”
“No, St. Louis.”
“The man is there?”
“The one with the winter clothes. Not from around here. Not from anywhere close by.”
Her boss breathed in sharp, then held her breath momentarily. “Have you heard him speak? Did you ever meet Anton? I probably mentioned him.”
“Never mind. I’m sure it’s perfectly fine.”
“And I think that Carlos is here. Looks different, but I say it’s Carlos. Did you know?”
“Dear lord. If Carlos is still there, then it probably is Anton. Did you get a good look at him?”
“At first she literally followed him from one place to another inside Union Station. He stands out, you know?”
“The man from Mendota. She pretended to ignore him every time he faced her direction. Then she stopped the full-on follow and is now doing this strange radar-like thing, looking everywhere but at him, yet still totally focused on where he is going.”
“Are you certain it is Anton?”
“You’re the one who said Anton. Five-eight or nine, white, sort of snarling lips, heavy but not truly overweight, nondescript hair color, not recently cut. Why is he wearing a raincoat? I’ve kept a good distance.”
“How close are you?”
“Wait. I take back the white thing. Maybe Asian.”
“Maybe or definitely?”
“No. Not Asian. Dark hair?”
“And here’s the strange thing. He knows she’s following him. I saw him trying not to look at her while she tried not to look at him as she traced his movement. It’s like they’re doing that dance where the partners step like crazy and never look at each other?”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
“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?
“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.
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.
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?
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?”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?”
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.
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.
Friday, 12:45 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine
Inviting aromas sifted through the restaurant. Hannah settled in to a chair near an open window, glad for the view to the river and the rhythmic sound of flowing water, the outdoorsy smell of firewood smoke. Turkeys roamed the grounds outside and surprised Hannah with their occasional gobble sounds. Anton had let go the intense look that had confounded Hannah and taken on the look of a little boy, delighted in a shared discovery. But what he had discovered was still a mystery to Hannah.
She had asked for tea in careful Ukrainian, and the waitress offered four available teas. Which would she like? At least, Hannah assumed that was what the waitress was saying. She hadn’t answered Hannah’s question in Ukrainian. The waitress had ticked the choices off on her fingers and spoken Russian.
Hannah fumbled her answer, parroting back one of the choices without knowing which she had picked. What had she said? She had repeated one of the words, but could hardly remember it now, just a moment later. The language had been such a surprise. Why should any language surprise her?
Perhaps she was feeling fatigue. There had been so much that had happened in the last several days. She tried to think of expressing that thought in her new Ukrainian skills. Words came to mind, but the effort seemed laborious. Though she could imagine speaking Ukrainian, that did not mean it would be easy. And Russian? Hannah had listened to the cadence of the waitress’ sentence. Shouldn’t she be able to make some transition from one language to the other? She’d always been able to do that with other languages.
Hannah touched the back of her head, but just for a moment. There was no real need for the old habitual motion. She no longer had any sensation there at all.
The tea, though, was warm and comforting. She drew a deep breath, then sighed it out. Hannah told herself to focus on the moment. This puzzle would play out. She let that thought soothe her. Hannah was pain-free, and that alone should make her very, very grateful.
Friday, 12:50 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine
Anton had begun a conversation with a group of businessmen at the next table, and Hannah seemed to be settled in with a before-lunch cup of tea. Cleo wanted a break from the restaurant’s fire wood smoke, and excused herself while they waited for their food. Why would the summer lunch crowd be sitting inside around a fire on a hot day? She remembered air conditioning in Kyiv.
First order of business: contact her boss.
Outside the restaurant, Cleo pulled out her phone. No connection. She had been assured the signal would work anywhere on the planet. But it did not work here, in this forest of Chernihiv. She brought out her notebook. No wifi. Rifling through her handbag, she pulled out the portable modem. Finally, a weak signal. She would have to use Skype.
What time would it be in Panamá City? No use worrying about that; she placed the call. It rang for a long time. When Sandra’s face finally came into view, she was hardly recognizable: rumpled, eyes barely open, glaring at Hannah from a room with one small grudging light.
“We’re in a place called Chernihiv,” Cleo said to Sandra’s unhappy face on the screen of her notebook.
“You don’t call for days, then you wake me up at god-knows-when in the middle of the night. It’s dark outside.”
“The phone doesn’t work here, Sandra. I know you keep your Skype on. Sorry about the hour.”
“I keep it available for show, not so that anyone will actually contact me.”
Sandra shielded her eyes with a hand, then turned the bedside light away.
“So, Chernihiv. Here we are. Sandra, you can’t believe how truly marvelous Kyiv was. The food, the shopping.”
“You were there just one day. Are you still with Hannah, or did the shopping spree take over?”
“That’s not fair. You wouldn’t believe the way I am working this job. I am suddenly so ahead of the game. I am the queen of competence.”
“Briefly, then. And quietly. Tell me what you’ve discovered.”
“Well,” said Cleo, taking a prideful deep breath. “Anton lives in that rooming house we stayed at. That’s his home.”
“Perfect. You know where he lives.”
“He needs Hannah for something that is very personal.”
“For what?” asked Sandra.
“What?” asked Cleo, not expecting the question.
“What does he want her for?”
“Don’t you know? Shouldn’t you know? It has something to do with this spot at the back of her ear. The rooming house host has one, too.”
Sandra’s unimpressed look disheartened Cleo. She had worked hard and well to learn what she knew.
“A spot at the back of her ear?”
“Maybe it doesn’t sound like a lot, but it seems like it’s more than you know.”
“So,” said Sandra. “I’ll summarize. You are following along with Hannah and Anton because he lives in a boarding house and she has a spot at the back of her ear that the host also has.”
“Don’t you have something for me? Shouldn’t I be getting some direction from you?” asked Cleo.
“I’m going to pretend that this call was a bad dream. Tomorrow, call me back on my phone. Certainly, they have phones in wherever-the-hell, Ukraine. Find one.”
“I sent an email. I thought I should report. You could have called me. We haven’t spoken since St. Louis.”
“I always knew where you were. Carlos has figured out how to use a phone in Ukraine. And he calls at appropriate times.”
Cleo wondered what had happened to her confidence. What had happened to her successes? Maybe her timing was off, but she should have been able to impress Sandra with some accomplishment. Perhaps if she had still been in Kyiv, Cleo might have been able to laugh it off. Then go shopping.
Friday, 1:10 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine
Lunch came oven-baked in a crock, with a blend of root vegetables and unusual flavors. Delicious. The bread was dark-colored with a heavy crust and soft inside.
Hannah listened to Anton ask Cleo a question, heard Cleo’s perfunctory answer. She wondered about the sounds, but it did not occupy her mind. The restaurant seemed tranquil, relaxing. Was it simply this place itself, able to produce a lull in life’s usual complexity? Maybe some of Hannah’s sense of calm came from the utter, complete lack of pain.
Hannah breathed deep. Even the smoky atmosphere brought the comfort of peacefulness.
People talked, back and forth, in calm and ease. The wait staff carried food and plates here and there in a mealtime rhythm, commenting as they set down their selections. Patrons seemed to linger, to enjoy their conversation. This place was a haven. Complete charm, absolute comfort. Indistinguishable chatter went on contentedly around her. She had no pain.
Something was very, very wrong.
Friday, 1:15 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine
Cleo ate without thinking much about the food. Hannah seemed preoccupied with her tea and the view out the window. Anton played the host with a mixed-up version of some language that Cleo stopped trying to understand.
She had begun the conversation with Anton to figure out a schedule for the work Hannah would do, but could not understand the maxi-lingual answer Anton gave. She felt a headache coming on, intensified by the interior smoke. As the meal ended, she excused herself again, visited the restroom, then walked outside.
And saw Carlos. He was resting against the wooden fence that lined one of the walkways. Cleo approached. He looked a bit more fatigued than she remembered.
“Should I be surprised to find you here?” said Cleo. “Because I’m not. Not at all. But I am surprised at how tired you look.”
“Finding my way around a country without language skills can be tough. I’ll admit to that.”
“None. Not much Russian, either.”
“Unusual feeling, being without good language skills?” asked Cleo.
“If you two hadn’t taken some time getting your stuff together back at the boarding house, I would never have made it here on time.”
“How are you finding us?”
“I am a bit better-trained in those tracking devices than you. And mine lasts much longer.”
“I did pretty well, considering.”
“That you did. Clever, the one you put on the runner. Battery life is short on those, right?”
“Right. I was so proud to have followed him. Why can’t I convey my cleverness to Sandra?”
Carlos hmphed, a sound not a word. “She’s a tall order, that one.”
“Who’s your contact at JSA?”
Carlos crossed his arms, placed one heel against the wooden rail behind him.
“So. Where is Anton taking you from here?”
“You don’t answer my question, but I’m supposed to answer yours? Don’t we work together, for the same agency?”
“For the same agency, that’s right,” said Carlos.
Cleo heard a gobble, and looked toward a grassy area, counting four turkeys walking toward the river. Why wouldn’t Carlos tell her who his direct boss was? She’d assumed it was JS himself. It made her feel hesitant.
“So, you are tracking us. That was probably easier in Kyiv.”
“Have you found anyone here who speaks English?”
“German?” asked Cleo.
“English, Spanish, German. What other languages do you speak?”
“Who said anything about Spanish.”
“I can tell. I live in Panamá City, remember? So, Carlos. Why can’t we make this simple? Why don’t you just join us?”
“Better to have someone on the outside.”
“Come on. You and me working together? Wouldn’t that make this easier? Can’t you just tell me why JSA is interested in following Hannah? You must have an idea.”
“They have their reasons. Have you gotten anything from Anton?”
“There’s no way to guess what Anton is thinking or where he plans to go. I am sure he knows, but I’m not going to get any specific answer from him. I can’t get him to talk about the purpose for Hannah’s trip here. Isn’t that why JSA is interested?”
“I suppose,” he said.
“I know that Hannah is a brilliant interpreter. I know she can learn completely new languages like I learn a repetitive nursery rhyme in my mother tongue. But my guess is that JSA wants her for her ability to judge the truth. She can do that in every language she knows, right?
“That and a bit more is my guess.”
“And that’s why JSA needs her?”
Carlos looked away, scanning the pathway. “That’d be my guess.”
But his words had lost their life. He spoke flat, unconvincing sounds. Maybe jet-lag had pushed him to let his guard down, but Cleo was sure that Carlos had just told a lie himself.
Friday, 1:35 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine
Light banter from every direction. Hannah had identified it as Russian, but that was only an educated guess. She had very little experience with that language, but could distinguish a ‘nyet’ from a ‘no’. At least that’s what she hoped she was hearing. The speech was so fast.
Anton had taken up a conversation with two men from the next table. As Hannah held her tea cup, she listened. There was the casual overlap of speech, occasional laughter with the usual person-to-person variation. Humor, teasing, relief, aggression. There was much to learn in laughter aside from the short respite from having to listen for words.
Hannah also heard the conversation from the table behind her. A man and a woman speaking in low tones with less gusto than the men in Anton’s conversation. What language were they speaking? Hannah tried to concentrate. Why was she having to concentrate?
Through all the conversations, with her relaxing cup of after-lunch tea, Hannah should be absorbing the words like a succulent absorbing water, letting the words fill her mind. Learning should be instant, without effort.
Hannah forced herself to listen, carefully, every detail. Why didn’t these people slow down and enunciate?
She understood the occasional words spoken in Ukrainian. Those, she had acquired earlier while talking with Anton, mostly on the airplane. Words had swirled around her then, new, but within her understanding. That learning experience had been swift, almost automatic. It now amounted to the vocabulary of a 10 or 11-year-old, she figured. Those words, the ones already a part of her repertoire, were hers still.
But there were so many other words, nuances of pronunciation, or regional colloquialisms, that she should have been learning, should have been adding to her knowledge base. Those words were not adding up.
Twenty, fifty, one hundred words a minute she had always been able to pick up in beginning to learn a language. Right now, though, she wasn’t learning any. None in Russian, no new ones even in Ukrainian.
Not only that, she heard several differences of speech around her that she assumed meant regional accents or personal choice in word usage, or perhaps even a different tongue altogether. But each word around her simply dropped into a puddle of sound. Hannah could hear them, but they were no longer significant. They had no meaning.
She asked a question to Anton. ‘What time is it?’ – a most basic question spoken well in Ukrainian. He answered that it was nearly two o’clock. All of this was fine, her language fluent and competent, her understanding easy. She hadn’t lost any of the words she already possessed.
She felt no sensitivity from the bone in back of her ear. She had no ache, no need to find the hum of distraction. No pain. None at all. Something else, though, was also missing. Hannah’s special language learning had shut down. She sensed the vacuum it had left behind. That talent had turned off completely at the loss of the pain.
Hannah’s breath accelerated, her palms tingled. Panic from an unexplored idea set in. She had never questioned her ability in language. It had set her apart – not always in a good way – and had been her life-long companion. Anton had said it well. Hannah was that little language lady.
Who was she if she lost her talent?
Hannah realized what was happening. It made her hand shake and her breath catch. She saved from splashing over what little tea remained and placed her cup on the table. Hannah turned fully toward the window, seeking some privacy as she sorted her thoughts.
Wait. A young voice spoke. ‘Chernyy khleb.‘ A new word association she picked up in context. The boy from two tables over pointed to the bread on his plate, repeated the words.
Was she certain of the meaning? No, but having heard each word in other contexts, Hannah might presume the meaning. Dark bread? She would have to remember and test out the words. She would have to study it, experiment, perhaps change her understanding. And it was the simplest of word connections. Dark bread? No – black bread. That was it.
Hannah was struggling to learn. Would she have to work this hard with each small, insignificant piece of meaning in vocal sound? Was this what other people went through? A numbness spread from her hands up her arms, around her shoulders and through her chest.
She would have to learn language like a normal person.
Ease with language had been her longest identity. Maybe she had been odd, short, abrupt, with a general forgettable physical ugliness. Maybe she behaved awkwardly, always, by her nature, and because of that, people reacted to her as a peculiar, difficult person. Maybe she had always looked like she did not fit in with any social group. Perhaps that gap had strengthened and become a part of her outward life, and her self-concept. All this had become who she was.
But she had also always been gifted with languages. It explained away her oddities. Now, though, with her unique talent disappeared, she was left with simply being odd.
Friday, 1:45 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine
Carlos had disappeared like the phantom he seemed to be. He would follow them, but how he would accomplish that, Cleo had no idea. The only thing she had learned from Carlos was that he might not be trusted with telling the truth. Well, she had noticed the lie. That was something.
She walked back into the restaurant, where Hannah and Anton were still at the table.
“Anton,” Cleo said, “I need a plan. I’ve come with you on trust. Now, I’d like to know what to expect. Please answer in English. I’m here because of Hannah. What does she need to do for you?”
“Is easy. Hannah does this.” Anton waved his hand around the restaurant. “Is simple.”
“She eats in a restaurant?”
“She learn language. Talk. Is all.”
“This is the work you were talking about?” asked Cleo.
“Dah, yes. Is work.”
“No, Anton. It’s not work. This is not at all the impression you gave us.”
“You ask what work. I tell what work,” said Anton. “Is problem? Is no problem.”
“Hannah. What do you think of this? Was this your understanding?”
Cleo turned to their companion and saw confusion on her face. Cleo had thought Hannah had gotten over the jet-lag.
“Anton,” said Hannah, “say ‘restaurant’ in English, then in Ukrainian.”
“Oh, please. There was enough of this on the airplane,” said Cleo.
“Now say something I wouldn’t know in Ukrainian,” said Hannah. “Say something very specific, a word that isn’t often used, and let me figure it out.”
“Hannah, let’s stay with one topic,” said Cleo. “Finally, Anton begins to give us an answer about your work. Let’s stay in that conversation.”
“Say ‘elastic’,” said Hannah. “Let me see if I can find the root word.”
“I do not know word,” said Anton.
“You don’t know this English word,” said Hannah. Anton nodded. “I see. You, a normal person learning the English language in a normal way, don’t know such a specific word yet.”
“No more,” said Cleo, trying to keep the shrill out of her voice. “Let’s get back to the work plan. In English.”
“And you can’t guess the meaning,” said Hannah. Anton shook his head, then shrugged his shoulders. “But there is some doubt. Perhaps you could attempt a reasonable estimation.”
“Maybe is clothes thing,” he said.
“Ah,” said Hannah. “You’ve heard the word ‘elastic’ and it is associated with clothing. I see.”
Cleo could feel the heat on her forehead.
“Just stop right now,” she said. “I want an answer from you, Anton. I want to know how much longer we will be here.”
Cleo watched as Hannah placed her hands on the arms of her chair, stretched her feet to the ground, first one then the other, and used the traction to push her chair from the table with an effort that put a sad look of concentration on her face. She rose and spoke.
“I won’t be leaving just yet, Young Cleo.”
Before Cleo could respond, Hannah left the table and walked out the restaurant door.
Friday, 2 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine
Hannah walked down a pathway heading away from the restaurant. Shouldn’t her mind be spinning? Shouldn’t the numbness be spreading? Why did she feel so calm? Hadn’t she just lost her identity? Why didn’t she feel lost?
So this was her choice. No pain, no language. That was the cost of her effortless, magical ability – constant pain.
But did she really have a choice in it? The pain had disappeared on its own. Why? How could Hannah call it back? Did she want to?
The work she had done for JSA was not a life-and-death issue. Hers was simply a talent, an ability with languages. A rare talent, and one that processed people’s meanings and therefore the lies they so often told. Important, unique, but not life-and-death. Even those rare violent words were simply that – words. Hannah could not persuade life to go on nor end it. She simply interpreted the spoken word. The world would continue, much the same, whether her skill lived or died.
What about Hannah?
What would she do now? She had some level of fluency in nine languages. Wasn’t that enough? She was over 50 years old. She should be old enough to accept life’s changes.
Without pain, would she be a different person? Would she only be without pain and new languages, or would she lose everything, even her ability to judge a speaker’s intentions, their lies? Maybe she’d lost that already.
There was suddenly so much in her life that was uncertain. Her identity had been so strong she had hidden herself away for ten years to find some relief. She had found none. Who would she be if she was no longer the little language lady? Why wasn’t she panicking at the loss of her identity?
She sat on a bench, enveloped in a sheath of green heavy leaves. She felt alone. There were no words around her. The abstract turmoil in her mind quieted as Hannah became more aware of the feeling of calm.
Tiny sprays of fuzz lifted with the slight breeze from the blossom of the tree, each vaporous seed floating away to add to the unending forest.
The bench had been placed in a perfect spot. On a slight rise, it faced a view over the very tips of the multitude of leaves, and then past the river.
There, across the river, was a series of large buildings. Not buildings people lived in, but some sort of manufacturing site. It looked distinctively metallic. From this distance, it seemed made of enormous heavy tin boxes. There was a tall immobile crane, or a mechanical arm that reached into a gap in the side of the largest building near the roof line. The site looked disused, empty, deserted.
Words came to Hannah’s mind – sudden, remembered words: folga, zdaniye, ruka, dom, glavnaya.
Tin foil, building, arm, house, home. Why did she know these Russian words?
Friday, 3:15 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine
Anton had won again.
They were in the car taking a driving tour of this riverside, tree-laden, once-new city of Chernihiv. Anton was pointing to buildings and long walkways and monuments and busy streets. He gave explanations in a curious English-Ukrainian-Russian language that Cleo tried to put into a background of droning noise. Hannah appeared to be listening. She nodded every once in a while, with a foggy uncertain expression on her face.
Cleo wondered where her own enthusiasm had gone. Where was that spark of capability that had been hers in Kyiv? She had come into an intoxicating feeling of self-possession, where she had believed in her ability to accomplish whatever came her way. And more. She had done things she would never before have thought to do in her life.
Follow an unknown person through the streets of a city she had never been to before? Not only had she done that, Cleo had placed the tracking device that had made it all possible. Search the room of a very suspicious-acting Anton? Well, searched perhaps was not the most accurate word, but she had certainly opened the door of his very locked room.
Cleo wanted that feeling back. She wanted to be in front of the action, directing the course of this journey back home. Or at least back to Kyiv.
She looked again to Anton.
He was turned around in his front seat, facing Hannah in the rear seat, explaining the monument of a very large man. Cleo saw his animation, his earnest intensity, his feeling of connection to Hannah. This part of communication, not the understanding of the language, but this expressive, open body language, Cleo understood. And it told her Anton’s reason to bring them here, to Ukraine, was intensely personal.
But Cleo got nowhere past that, and that was just interpretation on Cleo’s part. How could she regain control of this venture? Regain? Who was she kidding? Anton had controlled this outing from the very beginning. It kept coming back to this: if Cleo could understand Anton’s mission, she could make some progressive decisions that might get her home. That was a big ‘if’. Her only other option was just to get up and go.
She watched their conversation. He was investing himself in Hannah. There was a question, a plea, in his eyes. Looking at Anton, Cleo realized this venture would have no set timetable if she didn’t intercede. Personal connections had their own schedule. They defied the calendar Cleo lived by. If she did nothing, she would be along for the ride, which would take exactly as long as it took. No predictability. No rational schedule. No understanding until she understood.
Her job had placed her into an unthinkable mix of employment happenstance. No one had given her a believable reason to follow Hannah. So far, she seemed to be dog-paddling to stay above calm waters. What would happen when Cleo faced the inevitable rapids? How badly did she need this job?
Friday, 3:25 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine
They stopped at Lenin’s statue. They stopped at Chernihiv’s Red Square. They drove past the largest hotel, the long fountains, the enormous block of apartments.
Hannah allowed Anton to guide this tour, and he did so with a loving intensity. He was from this city. Hannah was sure of that. Anton had lost himself in the excitement of the tour, juggling three languages, showing a town he knew better than any other, introducing his home. It was obvious he wanted someone else to feel a similar sense of belonging.
That someone else was Hannah herself.
She did feel at home in this place. The word had come again to mind, in Russian, before she could race through her memory and translate it. In fact, she did not need to translate the word. Home. Glavnaya. She had not needed the English confirmation. This was home. How could that be?
Was that the reason for Anton’s intensity? She didn’t know if she could trust her instincts about judging his character. She had felt he did not have a violent intent, but what his intention was, Hannah did not know.
She also did not know how she, an American born in the United States, could have a home half a world away. A home she had never known about. Within all those uncertainties was the compelling sense that Hannah needed to learn what all this meant. There was no stopping now, regardless whatever was Anton’s motivation.
The car pulled up at the tin-box manufacturing site. The words again crowded Hannah’s mind: folga, zdaniye, ruka, dom, glavnaya. Russian words?
“Krasnivyy vid,” said Anton. “Beautiful. Prekrasny.”
“English, if you don’t mind, Anton,” said Cleo.
“Please, let’s walk,” said Anton.
The three got out of the car. Hannah noticed weeds growing through cracks in the concrete of the parking lot, the tall chain link fence topped with barbed wire, the broken glass of the windows. The rusting metal of the closest building. She listened as the other two talked.
“Is beautiful view, no?” he said.
“Not really, Anton,” said Cleo. “Perhaps there is a way to get to the river. Then, there might be a nice view.”
“Look over building,” said Anton. “Zdaniye. There you see view.”
“That’s asking quite a lot, Anton. Maybe if we drive to the other side.”
“Yes, yes. Dah. Good idea.”
But nobody moved.
Hannah tried to ignore Anton’s steady gaze. How would he interpret her reaction to this setting? She did not know how to react herself. She had a need to move her hands to her chest, patting, soothing, comforting, but she resisted that emotion-laden movement. Instead, she shielded her eyes from the heavy sun, turned away to look past the tall empty factory-like building.
A row of small stone and wood houses stood along the side of the tin-box building. Wooden sections had fallen away in several places. The roofs were large pieces of rusting corrugated metal. Glavnaya. Home.
But, there was more. Hannah did not need to hear the translation in her mind. She understood. Without knowing how, she understood what her memories were telling her.
This was not only her home in a general sense. It was very specific. It was intensely personal. Hannah fought to keep her emotions from showing. She held her facial expression neutral, shielded, but her hand strayed to her heart.
Moy dom. In that tattered row stood her childhood house.
Friday, 4:15 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine
First the ‘university’ in Kyiv that was anything but an academic student-filled institution, then the ‘beautiful view’ of that deserted factory. Anton had taken them on tours, but the entire visit – the whole reason for coming to Ukraine – was a simple exercise in getting them to these two places. A university that was not a place of learning, and a beautiful view that was not at all scenic.
Two sites to visit, but the purpose of those visits Cleo could not understand. The places stood out, united in their peculiarity, completely dissimilar in every other way. These were the keys to their coming here, but the reasoning was incomprehensible, and now spoken by Anton in a mash-up of more languages than Cleo could take in.
And then, there was the interaction between Anton and Hannah. Cleo was an outsider observing a deepening of her companions’ connection. In the span of the past hour, they had developed a strange way of talking, as if in any language, these two would understand each other. Watching them raised the hairs on Cleo’s arms, especially since she had conceded it was her job to get to the bottom of their odd link.
Cleo was determined to do what her job required: follow Hannah, bring her home. It would help to understand Anton’s actions, but her allegiance was with Hannah. That responsibility came back with a singularly intense pull.
The completion of that task, though, would not be simple. It was the same as when Sandra had directed Cleo to get Hannah into her car. Simple to say, very difficult to accomplish. In fact, Cleo felt that everything she had accomplished since then had not brought her closer to that simple goal.
But the same basic fact remained: as enigmatic as Hannah was, unless Cleo just walked away from her life, Hannah was Cleo’s ticket home. And the first step of that journey was to get back to Kyiv.
The three returned to the car, where the driver had waited in air-conditioned comfort. Cleo calculated that they could be back at the boarding house for a late dinner.
“To Kyiv, then, Anton?” she said.
“Maybe not,” he said, hesitantly, looking at Hannah for something that appeared to Cleo like approval.
Hannah was staring out the window, as if they had already begun their journey and there were interesting things to see. But there was only a lonely row of forgotten houses running down a disused street alongside the empty factory building. She couldn’t plan on help from Hannah.
Cleo gathered the memories of herself as energized, capable, decisive. She would have to be like that once again. In that voice, she spoke.
“Let’s go, Anton. We need to get back to Kyiv. The rooming house is calling. Dinner will be waiting.”
Anton sat up straight in his seat, clapped his hands once and nodded his head. “Barbekyu!” he said.
It looked to Cleo like he thought he had solved all the world’s problems with that one word. Cleo glanced at Hannah to see her quickly hide a very slight smile.
“Did he just say ‘barbecue’?” Cleo asked.
Friday, 4:30 PM Chernihiv, Ukraine
She remembered running into the forest. Looking down, she could see her toddler-sized shoes, dark brown with a strap, padding against the soft dirt of the forest floor. It was a summer day, then as now. Tall trees that her small child-sized arms could reach around quickly surrounded Hannah. Khanna malyshka. Little Hannah.
She and – who was with her, another child? – gathered kindling. They followed an older man – her father? – as he found one after another cache of secret mushrooms. He carried a burlap bag over his shoulder for the mushrooms, wore a cap on his head, called teasingly to the children to stay away from Baba Yaga.
They returned from the forest to her home, alongside the tall folga zdaniye – tin-foil building – a child’s name for the factory. The little boy ran into the house next door.
Her mother sat outside on the porch, working at a large wooden table. She was kneading salt and pepper into chunks of meat, then placing the meat into a large bowl with ripe round cut-in-half tomatoes. Fresh chopped dill tickled Hannah’s nose, making her laugh. She picked up a handful and tossed it into the bowl as her mother continued to work the spices into the meat and tomatoes.
Her mother wiped her hands on her apron, picked up the bowl, motioned to Hannah to bring the kindling and the longer cuttings of dill. They joined her father under a tall trellis covered in vines. Her father placed the sack of mushrooms on top of a large, flattened paper bag on the ground. Her mother took the kindling from Hannah and started the fire, laying the dill on top.
Hannah’s mother and father began sorting through the mushrooms, putting aside some for today’s meal and saving others for later. Soon, the fire turned to embers. They placed the marinated meat onto the hot grid of steel rods, then added the mushrooms and tomatoes on top.
Her father turned and looked over to the house next door, where the small boy stood on the porch. Hannah heard her father’s voice clearly as he spoke in English.
“Anton, tell your parents,” he called, “come. We eat soon. Barbekyu.”
Friday, 5:45 PM Outside Chernihiv, Ukraine
Cleo stepped to the living room window of the tiny two-story dacha Anton had been so delighted to show them. From this view, she looked out to four country lanes, duplicate dachas lined up and down in wide-spaced rows of similar living.
She could see other neighborhoods in the distance, countryside escapes, Anton had explained, where people could grow their vegetables and feel some relief from the city’s Soviet-style apartments of large group living. And where they could enjoy barbekyu.
She looked out over rows of cabbages, carrots, and tall greens. Four fruit trees, perhaps cherry or apricot, rimmed the small garden. Anton had proudly announced a long litany of other produce that Cleo couldn’t identify. There was a small pasture-like space behind the fenced garden. Somewhere among the rows were potatoes.
Cleo judged they were 30 minutes northwest from Chernihiv. The driver had left them off in front of the small brick home, and Anton, at the same moment, stood taller and appeared more relaxed.
During the drive, Cleo had noticed the forest thin out. Rambling farm spaces with plots of smaller trees here and there began to appear along the countryside roads. They had taken the freeway a short distance, then turned off onto a two-lane highway with broad shoulders for buses to collect and leave off patrons.
The neighborhood of miniature houses was visible from the highway. Cleo and Hannah could walk back and catch a bus to Chernihiv, then the train to Kyiv.
The window was shut. Her view was interrupted by a wrought ironwork guard, and that distinctive three-paned window. She looked out past the garden and saw each tiny two-story dacha in the neighborhood. Made of light-colored brick, some with a diamond design on one side, each rose like tall barn-shaped Lego homes, each surrounded by a roughly 40-foot square garden yard, with a small pasture to the rear.
As evening began to descend, there was a chill to the air that Cleo had not noticed in Kyiv. Smoke began to rise from the middle of some of the dachas‘ roofs, coming out of tall ceramic pipes from the center of the rooflines. Cleo thought it was all so unfamiliar, yet she could identify many parts to the whole of the picture she witnessed.
In the yard, Anton and Hannah stood around a small, square black iron barbecue resting on the ground. Cleo saw Hannah reach for a jacket Anton had brought out. As she put it on, Anton layered chicken, potatoes, tomatoes and corn onto the heated coals.
Cleo had left them several minutes before, weary of trying to understand their language. She suspected they were speaking something quite different from the Ukrainian with which they had begun. She was tiring of the oppressive language spectacle that punctuated this venture. When would they return to simple English? In that language, Cleo could function.
She had come inside the house to find the bathroom. She had found the kitchen with a wood-burning oven and no running water. She had found the living room to the side of the kitchen, and up a ladder – not a staircase, a simple true ladder – on the second floor, she had found two bedrooms. A powder room, she had not found.
Looking out past Hannah and Anton, she saw a very suspicious looking small wooden shack. Outhouse, it had to be. There was much about this country escapade that was becoming tiresome.
Cleo walked to the door, looked down at the shoes she had removed before coming inside. Had she purchased them just yesterday? She wished for a sidewalk and many-storied buildings with frail balconies and people who spoke English with a strong accent. She missed Kyiv. Again.
She heard Anton’s voice from the yard. “Cleo, bring jacket, come, we eat soon. Barbekyu.”
Friday, 11:30 PM Outside Chernihiv, Ukraine
Hannah knew they had to leave.
She had judged the distance from the highway to Anton’s dacha, and it was easily walkable. Though the gravel road had tire tread rows, it was really more of a walking path to the bus stop. The marked bus stop, with a covered bench, waited for them at the corner of Anton’s street and the highway. She and Cleo could catch a bus.
When they got to Chernihiv, Hannah would see Cleo safely on her way. That much, she owed her. It wasn’t Cleo’s fault that things had taken this turn.
Then, alone, Hannah would have some time to think. Away from Young Cleo. Away from Anton. Away, most especially, from the shadow of JSA and the thoughtless passport they had given her. Hannah thumbed the corner of the passport one last time, then placed it into the flap of her backpack.
Hannah had always been an American. Hadn’t she? It was a fact she knew to be true. There was never any doubt, nor reason to think about it. A fact is a fact; it doesn’t change with any new lesson in geography.
It wasn’t possible that Chernihiv was her childhood home. But what about the memories? What about the remembered words? And Anton? What does a person do when an entire part of their brain stops hurting and starts opening up with new places and people and ideas?
An unwanted truth had come to visit Hannah and sunk in to stay. Now, she began to think that this different truth had always been walking around in the back of her consciousness, had just now wandered to the front, presented itself, and would forever be the new truth. The real thing. The truth that was beginning to bring Hannah comfort and peace.
She reached over to Cleo’s shoulder, gave a soft shake.
“I wasn’t really asleep,” Cleo said. “I have to pee.”
“Handy coincidence. We have to leave.”
Cleo sat up from the couch she had settled on in the living room of the dacha. The two had refused Anton’s suggestion they share the second upstairs room, telling him the ladder was a step too far for them both.
“Leave? Really leave? Like back to Kyiv?”
“Something like that. It’s not yet midnight, and Anton said buses run along the highway until 1AM.”
“Let’s go. Grab your things. I’m already packed. Let’s go. Let’s go now.”
“How much money do you have?” asked Hannah. “In cash?”
“A bit. I exchanged some, about two hundred, in Kyiv.”
“And US dollars?”
“Cash? About two hundred more,” said Cleo.
“Good. I’m sure Anton will hear us moving about, so let’s let him think we’re just using the facilities. We’ll take turns with the flashlight and meet outside. You first.”
“You remember where it is?” asked Hannah.
“Yes. Of course. Out there.”
“Cleo, have you ever used an outhouse before today?”
“Probably. Can’t we go together?”
“Quietly, then. Step lightly. Don’t drag your feet.”
Interior moonlight lit their way. Hannah breathed in the feel of this place, the familiar light of nighttime, the feel of thin floor tiles on bare feet, the habit of leaving your shoes at the door. As she reached for her shoes, she put one hand on the door latch for support. And noticed it was locked, from the inside, with no key. Another unbidden, remembered piece of her life. Her fingers lingered on the door. Yes, her life.
Cleo, at her elbow, gave a quick breath of surprise. “You have to have a key to get out of the house? He locked us in?” she said.
“Hush,” said Hannah.
Anton’s feet appear at the top of the ladder, then his face.
“To outhouse? I come.”
“Anton, why is the door locked? What would we have done if you hadn’t woken up?” asked Hannah.
“Key.” Anton picked up the chain that was hung near the ladder, in clear view if only Hannah had remembered to look there and if there had been a bit more light. He rattled the keys. “We go,” said Anton. “Ukrainian tradition. Midnight outhouse pee walk.”
They were caught. But Anton would be helpful on the way to the outhouse. They could simply follow him, instead of searching out the pathway in the dark themselves. Hannah began to revise her plans. She turned on her flashlight and stepped out the door and down the two steps to the gravel area at the side of the house.
It seemed lighter than Hannah expected. She looked up to see more stars, and brighter, than she ever remembered seeing before in her life. She smelled the deep night aroma of promised dew and wet earth, and listened to the quieting nighttime chatter of tiny insects that she couldn’t see. Anton led the way to the trellis.
“You two go first,” Hannah said, then sat on the picnic table bench, in the middle of the night with a flashlight in her hand. This, too, she had done before, she knew it. The calm of night settled around her. “Anton, Cleo will need your flashlight and a little direction. You can make your way back here to the bench, can’t you?”
“Dah, dah, dah.”
Hannah heard them shuffle away, listened to the instruction from Anton, then a door opening and Anton returning.
Let’s go. Let’s go now. She recalled Young Cleo’s voice.
But she and Anton sat, quiet, in companionable silence. The barbecue let out a faint simmer of roasting smells, the embers still smoldering.
“Good God, this is not a place for heels,” she heard Cleo say from the dark on her way back. Anton insisted Hannah take her turn next.
Then Hannah and Cleo sat on the bench, alone together in the Ukrainian countryside miles from electricity and plumbing. Hannah felt torn. Here, she was at peace, but there were other things she must do.
“Hannah. We could almost leave now,” Cleo said.
“Very tempting, but I doubt you can run in heels.”
“How long should we wait? It’s 11:40.”
“Let’s wait 30 minutes. Anton will be settled in and we should still have time.”
Anton was very quiet on his return, stopping to touch a tree limb, and adjust a metal support for the trellis, the actions of a proud and content owner. As he reached the picnic table, he pointed to the few lights along the highway, perhaps 1/4 mile away. A well-lit bus was pulling away from the stop.
“Last bus. Is early.”
Saturday, 4:45 AM Outside Chernihiv, Ukraine
Cleo felt trapped inside this tiny house. Anton had locked the door when they returned from the midnight prowl. He had said the heavy metal door would not stay closed if not locked. The clatter of old metal keys had resounded, noisily, and she had shared a look with Hannah.
She thought it must be nearly dawn. Had she slept? Perhaps an hour or two. Nervous pee called to her again, mostly because there was no handy bathroom.
From the couch, Cleo glanced over her shoulder, saw Hannah rouse and sit up. Hannah nodded her head at Cleo. Did she have a plan? Cleo watched as Hannah put on Anton’s jacket, empty money from her backpack into the jacket pockets, and stand up. She placed her finger over her lips, asking for quiet, then beckoned to Cleo.
She didn’t need any other invitation. Cleo grabbed her bag and was up in an instant. She cared not at all that her clothes would be rumpled from acting like pajamas. Anton’s extra coat would hide the wrinkles for a while.
They made as little noise as possible with the key at the door. Forewarned, they could minimize their movements, and hope that Anton, relaxed and comfortable in his upstairs room, might be fully asleep.
“Outhouse,” Cleo mouthed the word and pointed her request. If they were going to be on a long bus ride, she would need to prepare.
They walked together in the dark to the back of the garden. A wash basin and soap stood alongside the water barrel. Cleo had to admit everything in this little plot was exactly organized, perfectly sufficient, just what anyone would need to live.
Having finished, Cleo and Hannah began the walk back to the gate that led onto the street. Up along the highway, a car’s engine geared down. Dawn’s light was just beginning to release, and Cleo could see the edges of the highway. She could also see the headlights that were coming along the road toward the dacha.
Cleo felt Hannah pull at her arm, halting them at the corner of the trellis. The car came closer. Then stopped at the gate, engine idling.
Cleo closed her eyes and sighed out a frustrated breath. It was their car, with their driver, obviously returning to the scene for today’s episode in this misadventure. She looked to Hannah for ideas.
Hannah pulled again at her arm, toward the back of the garden plot. Cleo followed Hannah, who appeared to walk like she was born to this living. Hannah paced along the back fence, seeming to Cleo to be feeling her way. Hannah paused, and Cleo saw her push open a back gate, then beckon her to follow.
Cleo’s heels sunk immediately into soft earth, worked over for the next crop. She had no idea where Hannah was leading her, but Hannah seemed to have no doubt about where she was going. Cleo followed, reaching to the fences for support. They passed into the neighbor’s yard, then the next, and the next.
Sneaking away from Anton and the waiting car, away from the bus stop through the neighbor’s back plots made Cleo wonder about their plans. How would they get to the bus stop now? As they passed the back of the fourth dacha away from Anton’s, Cleo risked a whisper.
“We’re heading away from the highway.”
“Hush. We’re nearly there.”
Hannah continued past two more garden plots, then nodded with satisfaction and pointed to a pathway road just ahead. If Cleo’s sense of direction was correct, this road would bisect Anton’s road. But they couldn’t go back that way. The car, and possibly now Anton himself, stood in their way.
Hannah pulled two scarves from the coat’s pocket, tied one around her head. She handed the other to Cleo. Hannah then brought two pairs of gloves from another deep pocket. Most of the fingers in the garden gloves were gone, but they would disguise hands that had not seen any yard work since Iowa.
As they stepped out onto the roadway, Hannah put her arm through Cleo’s and led them away from the highway. A faint sun on the eastern horizon broke through the veil of clouds.
Two women turned the corner of the path just ahead, and came toward Hannah and Cleo. The women had linked arms and wore headscarves that covered their ears and tied under their chins. Thick woven socks covered their feet. One wore three-inch heels, even with the socks. A slow-breaking dawn revealed mist hugging the ground, making it appear as if the women were walking through a fairy tale. As they approached, the women dipped their heads.
“Dobre utra,” they said ‘good morning’ in unison.
“Dobre utra,” said Hannah back.
Cleo joined in the head bow, but she was more focused on the image. Two pairs of women, passing each other on a country lane in the early morning, each with old ill-fitting coats covering newer clothes, colorful scarves on their heads. In each pair, one was older, one younger, one in heels, one in practical walking shoes. Cleo thought they must be almost indistinguishable from each other.
But Hannah was still leading Cleo away from the highway and the bus stop. They passed three more dachas, away from the women and farther from where Cleo wanted to go. Then, with the bracing light of early morning, Cleo looked closely at Hannah.
“Good lord. Look at you. There is nothing American about you. You’ve changed your clothes. You’ve changed the way you walk. Hannah, where is your backpack?”
“Change of plans,” said Hannah.
Saturday, 5:25 AM Outside Chernihiv, Ukraine
It had been difficult to walk away. As soon as she found the back gate, the one that linked the two dachas, she knew.
Anton’s family and hers, as with the small homes on the factory grounds, had been neighbors here in the countryside. She had walked past the edge of a country home where she had lived with her parents. How old had she been when they left? Why had her parents hid all these memories? Who was Misha? That name came into her consciousness as she walked along the back fence. There was so much to know.
Had the homes been assigned to them? And if so, why? Hannah had heard of that practice, made complicated by the break-up of the Soviet Union. But Anton apparently still owned the small, square home. What had happened to Hannah’s family dacha? She had so wanted to open the back gate to that garden, and go retrieving memories in the early dawn.
But it was not yet time for that. First, ensure Cleo’s safe departure. Second, think. Then the decisions Hannah needed to make would be easier. Not easy. But easier.
They walked on. Certainly, in this neighborhood of country living, there would be someone baking and selling bread, someone squeezing fresh juice with some leftover to trade to their neighbors, someone else who may have a taxi service, to the city and back again. Most people did not live here permanently, but there were probably enough that some household businesses had popped up.
“Please explain to me this change of plans,” said Cleo. “Because it looks to me like you are ready to embrace this Ukrainian life, with your gorgeous head scarf and your sensible walking shoes. My heels have been complaining since we started, and I think I popped a blister two blocks back.”
“I don’t like being the one to tell you, Young Cleo, but those heels will need to go. They are stained, they are impractical, and if I am to get you where you need to go, you must be ready for walking. Perhaps a good distance.”
“Longer than we’ve already walked?”
“It’s been half a mile, no more, nothing to complain about. Look ahead. I think I see a sign for a store.”
“It’s too dark to see. If there is a store, let’s hope there’s coffee. So, Hannah. Why did you leave your backpack? I remember you putting all your loose cash into your pockets. So, you are literally walking away with only your cash and the clothes on your back.”
“Ah. I see you’ve thought this over. When did you last see Carlos?”
“Carlos. He was at that restaurant yesterday. He says he will find us wherever we go. Some fancy tracking device.” She paused. “Oh, I get it. You think the tracker was on the backpack. I don’t think so, Hannah.”
“It wasn’t on the backpack.”
Cleo didn’t appear surprised at this, in fact, didn’t appear surprised at the two of them, disguised as Ukrainian women, walking down a country lane before sunrise.
“Why do I get the feeling that each question I ask only opens up a larger issue?” said Cleo. “So, why did you leave the backpack? And, where is the tracker that Carlos uses? ”
“Think about it, Young Cleo. What did your JSA give me that they could have manipulated in any way they wanted?”
“Oh. The passport. Too easy. They put the tracker in the passport.”
“That’s what I decided, also.”
“So, you left the passport back at Anton’s. I assume you have your Hannah Black passport with you. That will present some problems at the airport, Hannah. But what about all your other stuff?”
“Look just up ahead. It is a store, and they are opening up. I smell bread baking. I wonder if the owner would know of a reliable taxi service back to Chernihiv?”
Saturday, 5:30 AM Outside Chernihiv, Ukraine
This country seemed to be run by middle-aged women.
Cleo had limped up to the neighborhood store to see a stout woman of about 45 slide a couple dozen bread rolls onto a cooling tray on the counter. The heavy aroma of baked whole wheat and seeds with just a hint of honey made Cleo admire the woman immediately. Then she noticed the brilliant metallic red of the woman’s hair color. She thought she smelled coffee somewhere behind the counter. She may have started moaning with pleasure.
Hannah had begun a conversation with the woman that soon produced two steaming cups – one of coffee and one of tea – and a plate of hot bread and homemade jam. Was that boysenberry? The woman also brought out a plate with a honey comb on top. In the gray of dawn, Cleo saw there were two chairs in front of the counter.
Cleo helped herself to a slice of the bread, dropped a dollop of jam and a dribble of honey on top, and marveled at the coffee with creamy milk. The conversation went on as Cleo sat in one of the chairs, then took her first sip. With so much to comfort her, she could hardly feel the sting from the blister.
The space was quite small, and Cleo tried to move her chair to give room for Hannah. But her chair would not budge. Something was pushed into the corner behind Cleo, just now coming into her vision with the morning light.
Hannah, still conversing with the woman, arranged her own plate as they talked, then sat. Cleo glanced to her right, saw a beauty salon-type wash basin and, out from the chair she had settled in, she saw the hood of a salon hair dryer reach up above her shoulder. Hannah spoke to her in English.
“Natalia here,” she indicated the woman behind the counter, “says her brother-in-law can drive us into Chernihiv, but not until he is done with his morning garden chores. In about an hour, maybe an hour and a half. Anton will think we took an early bus. I think that’s acceptable. What about you?”
“An hour and a half. Does Natalia know how to color hair?”
Saturday, 7:00 AM Staroyemesto, Ukraine
Cleo stood in front of the neighborhood store, looking every bit a young Ukrainian woman. Hannah had been surprised that Cleo so willingly embraced this dyed hair color, commonly seen here, but a bit more bold than anything Hannah had ever seen in the States. Cleo swore they would love it in Panamá. Shame she had to leave her heels behind. With the heels, she would be in complete Ukrainian style.
But Cleo’s future lay in getting back to her job. Having proved her worth, she deserved now to get what she wanted. She would be walking onto the next flight making her slow way back to JSA.
Hannah, though, would not.
Natalia had arranged that Otto, her brother-in-law, would bring Hannah back to this village, Staroyemesto, after she purchased Cleo’s tickets and by that time, everything would be settled. She would have a dacha to stay in, and some transportation back and forth from wherever she needed to go for the next week or two. There were several vacant country homes that would be acceptable. Natalia simply needed to make the calls, as long as Hannah had the cash.
It seemed to Hannah that Natalia had been much more worried about Cleo’s request. She had fretted over the hair style and the color, making adjustments until the moment that Otto pulled up with the car.
But Cleo herself was beaming. The neighborhood store, fit into the corner of an unassuming front room in a tiny country house, had delivered on more than just coffee. Cleo had her new hair color and a ride back into Chernihiv. From Hannah, she even had a promise that she would be back in Kyiv before noon.
Cleo didn’t need to know that Hannah wouldn’t be going along. She didn’t need to know just yet.
Saturday, 7:50 AM Chernihiv Main Bus Terminal, Ukraine
They had made it to the bus terminal in Chernihiv. Hannah was in line to purchase their tickets. She said she might be able to buy their airplane tickets at the travel agency next to the bus company kiosks. All Cleo needed to do was relax, let her blister adjust to the new shoes Natalia had sold her.
Cleo knew something was off with Hannah. She had left behind her backpack and, it seemed, all her possessions. Cleo had asked for an explanation, and though Hannah had spoken words, she hadn’t explained anything. She’d pointed out Cleo’s Ukrainian handbag and the importance of blending in. Hannah was leaving out all the inconvenient truth. And Cleo believed there was a good deal of that.
The one issue that most worried Cleo was the passport. How could Hannah get onto a plane with a passport that hadn’t been allowed into the country? Cleo could get no answer from Hannah. She wouldn’t even confirm she had a passport for Hannah Black, and so far, Cleo had seen no proof.
A sinking feeling that Hannah had her own destination in mind rested in Cleo’s gut. She felt rather helpless in this country of many languages, none of which Cleo spoke. She would have to rely on Hannah, who seemed more comfortable and less odd the more she spoke languages that Cleo could not understand. Hopefully, Hannah was buying at least one ticket to Panamá. It was past time for Cleo to be heading home.
In the meantime, Cleo had decided to contact her boss. What she would tell her and how much she needed to reveal, Cleo had not quite resolved in her head before the connection to Sandra came through. She saw her boss’ face come into view on her notebook.
“Good lord, Miss C. You are a red I’ve never seen before. Glorious. Did you do it on purpose?”
Cleo fluffed her hair, not reacting to her boss’ latest back-handed praise.
“I hope this is a better time for you than our last call. I tried the return call yesterday, but couldn’t get through,” said Cleo, hurrying the lie. “How late is it there?”
“I’m still at the office. Things here are swinging today. JS has an all-hands-on-deck thing, but so far, I haven’t seen much action.”
“Something I should know about?”
“There seems to be a lot of waiting around for I-don’t-know-what. I’m not concerned, so you shouldn’t be.”
“I have good news. We are in a bus station, perhaps heading home. Hannah seems to have agreed to come along, though I’m not entirely convinced she’ll follow through. How would you feel if I came home without her?”
“The whole idea was to arrange a meeting with John Smith. Is Hannah with you?”
“No one told me about a meeting,” said Cleo. “My whole idea was to follow Hannah. And I have done that. A lot. And she has agreed to come back. At least, I think she has. I just have this feeling…”
“Truly, Cherie? You got her to agree to come here? Is she with you?” Sandra seemed to be handling something off-screen, fidgeting.
“Well, I wouldn’t bet on anything yet, and Hannah is not an easy read, but it seems to be heading that direction. Maybe.”
Cleo had expected more, some instruction on what to do, perhaps even some congratulations. Or the unwanted expectation that, regardless what Hannah’s next step was, Cleo would need to follow her in this unending search for something Cleo couldn’t even name.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Cleo, “but all this may be over soon, right? If I do convince her to follow through, I assume we should come to Panamá City? I may need some help with her passport.”
“I suppose so. That sounds good.” Sandra was still fiddling off-screen, her face tilting slightly, her voice vague.
“Sandra, are you okay?”
Sandra tilted back, on screen and focused. “Oh, yes, Cherie. Where were we? Oh. Coming to Panamá City.”
Saturday, 8:15 AM Chernihiv Main Bus Terminal, Ukraine
Hannah had made all the purchases. One bus ticket to Kyiv’s airport. One air ticket to Panamá City that flew to an unreasonable amount of stops between here and there, but still the least connections available.
She wasn’t as concerned about that as she was concerned about explaining it all to Cleo. Five days she had known her. It shouldn’t be that difficult to break away.
Hannah walked toward Cleo, who was faced away from Hannah talking to her notebook computer. A call to her boss, no doubt. Hannah would give her a moment to finish up, but time was getting short. She stopped a polite distance away, not quite close enough to look over Cleo’s shoulder.
But the voice on the screen had caught her attention. Unbidden, without meaning to be, Hannah was drawn in.
The woman on the screen spoke. Hannah watched, listened and lip-read. There it was. The first lie she had heard since arriving in Ukraine.
Of course, there had been countless small infractions – the daily hubbub of vocal inconsistencies and white lies of social living. But Hannah had not observed the type of lie that drew her attention until now. Maybe she had been too jet-lagged at the university to notice, but since then, not one piece of verbiage had pulled her attention like this. The thought made her consider Anton, but just for a moment.
If only she could hear the voice on the screen clearly. She stepped just a bit closer, enough to begin hearing the complex tones in the words. The close-up voice always gave the conversation texture and depth. Hannah recognized the lie, and not just the lie, but the intensity of its telling. Was there also a violent intent?
Hannah focused on the woman speaking. Seated in an office setting, thin, stylishly dressed, speaking to Cleo in English with a forced French accent and repeating ‘Cherie‘ as if the word had no significance. But other words were important beyond the usual. Those were embedded in the lie.
“It will all be fine,” said Sandra. Because this woman had to be Sandra: comforting Cleo in an off-handed way, treating her as if Cleo wouldn’t know a thing about evaluating intense situations. “You’ll see. Everything will be fine.”
The lie reached out to Hannah and held her. But violence? There was none in the speaking of this conversation. Would Cleo know? Would she revert to the prior Cleo, the one who accepted whatever she was told as truth? Or would the lessons of the past several days stay with her?
Saturday, 8:20 AM Chernihiv Main Bus Terminal, Ukraine
Lies. She was getting tired of the lies.
She had known for a while that Sandra would give her half-truths. She would be casual with details and give false assurances. Cleo understood that was part of Sandra’s job. None of it mattered when Cleo’s job had been safe in her clean, predictable office, and her work product had been in written form. Now, Cleo was in the real world making judgements that changed with the accent of the person speaking. Cleo herself had pulled up self-protective half-truths without a thought. Maybe Sandra’s lies were necessary for work, but they were aggravating on two hours’ sleep.
“Sandra, I can handle it from here,” said Cleo. “Just tell me that you’re fine with me coming back. Hannah seems to be safe and as happy as I have ever seen her. She can make her own decision about coming or not.”
“Of course, Cherie. Everything will work out. You’ve done a perfect job in a tough situation.”
Sandra was fiddling off-screen again, and appeared to be glancing to the side of the computer screen. Cleo suddenly felt the conversation was words without meaning. Where had the urgency gone? Why had she needed to follow Hannah half way across the world if she could simply up and go home upon a whim of travel weariness?
“Well, I’ll text or email my travel details,” said Cleo.
Now, Sandra was looking beyond Cleo’s shoulder and then to something off-screen in her own office. Her facial expression did not match her words.
“It looks like you’re busy, Sandra.”
“Not at all, Cherie. Give me just a moment.” This was aimed over Cleo’s shoulder.
What was going on? Cleo turned around in her chair, and saw Hannah standing a short distance behind her, focused on the screen of Cleo’s notepad.
Hannah’s eyes went wide; a smile came to her face as she looked past Cleo. Another smile? Cleo wondered what was going on with the odd little woman. Hannah stepped closer, placed her hands over her heart.
“Now I remember. I know who you are,” Hannah said to the computer screen, soft words filled with adoration. Cleo would never have expected to hear such words spoken in Hannah’s voice.
Cleo turned back to look again at Sandra, but Sandra had disappeared. John Smith’s face was on her notepad screen, smiling at Hannah.
“Dobre utra, Khanna malyshka,” he said.
“Dobre utra, Misha.”
Saturday, 8:24 AM Chernihiv Main Bus Terminal, Ukraine
In the blink of an eye, Hannah’s life story turned a corner. Her ideas began to reshape, some things made more sense and a lovely peace settled upon the small world in which she had always lived.
Hannah no longer had any pain. Why that pain had come and gone, an issue that had consumed her yesterday, no longer held any value at all. Maybe pain had been her constant companion for decades upon decades. But right now, it mattered not even a small bit that once she had pain and now she did not.
What mattered now was why. Since she had lost the pain, she had memories returning to her consciousness that seemed impossible, but were more real in Hannah’s mind than the last 40 years had been. That was enough to think about and figure out. More than enough. And now that she had some calm, she knew where to seek her peace and quiet. And in that peace and quiet, she believed she might figure things out.
Hannah looked at Misha’s face on the notepad screen. A 12-year-old boy had grown up, become a man she had not recognized, and was now talking to her in a voice from nearly 50 years ago. Maybe she now recognized the boy in the man, and that allowed her to know the voice, but it all still remained an unsolved puzzle, but the truest memory she had yet come across.
Then Misha stopped speaking in that voice and began using the voice of the boss, a man Hannah knew to be as American as she had been. All of it, an undone puzzle, sitting in front of Hannah, waiting to be placed back into order. Today, right now, the puzzle was important. The past 40 years was not.
“I need your help,” he said. “You, only, from all of us at folga zdaniye, the tin foil building, the factory that wasn’t a factory, only you still have your ability intact. Do you remember, Hannah? It was not a factory. We joked, all of us, that it was a talent factory. There were others, Khanna malyshka, and they need your help.”
“I have much to think about, Misha. I cannot make plans beyond thinking.”
“Hannah, please. It’s urgent. We are all getting older.”
“Most likely, you have been helping me for a long time. But this is all very new to me.”
“Khanna. Come home.”
She stuffed her hands into the sagging pockets of Anton’s coat.
“What if I am home, Misha?” said Hannah.
Saturday, 8:30 AM Chernihiv Main Bus Terminal, Ukraine
Good morning. Dobre utra. They had said good morning to each other. Simple words, spoken in Ukrainian, or perhaps Russian, but to Cleo, the mystery was revealed.
The two spoke the same way Hannah had spoken with Anton. The link between Hannah and Anton included her big boss. Somehow John Smith was a part of this interaction. And Cleo knew that the personal reason that brought her professional agency into this event was explained. Hannah, John Smith, Ukraine. The details of the mystery may never be explained to her, but her ending was already in place. Cleo had done her job.
She had never heard the boss’ voice like that. He was not speaking a foreign language. His voice slid back into sounds that were more comfortable than Anton’s ancient garden gloves. John Smith was speaking to Hannah in his mother tongue, and calling her endearing childhood names. Khanna malyshka.
It seemed that whatever explanation Hannah would offer now for all the things that had passed in the last few days was out of Cleo’s hands and into a whole new realm that hardly involved her. 6At least it did not require her to make decisions that were beyond her comfort zone.
But that zone had been widely expanded. Cleo knew she had developed skills for growing her repertoire.
For instance, being able to make a decision on the spot. The encounter that was playing itself out on the screen of her notepad was not for her, and she didn’t feel the sting of being left out. She felt, in fact, a moment of freedom. Whatever was going on in that conversation was for someone else to understand.
She ran a hand though her newly-metallic hair and passed the notebook computer to Hannah. Cleo pointed to the clothes store she had seen standing hopefully alongside the travel agency, then spoke.
“Odezhda.” Clothes. A word Cleo had heard repeatedly during her shopping in Kyiv. “The clothes store is calling. Poka.” Bye.
Saturday, 8:50 AM Chernihiv Main Bus Terminal, Ukraine
She had to leave. Leave now. Walk away, with only the clothes on her back and the cash in her pockets. Leave all the trouble behind.
She had to leave behind the things that reminded her of being American, and embrace the things from her early childhood that would bring back memories from that time. No more backpack, no more rolled-up clothes. Then she could take the time to sort things out. Especially now, with this new twist in her life’s story.
She hadn’t planned to be enticed into the computer conversation. Even more, she had not planned to see John Smith. And she had never, not once, not even for an instant in the very, very back of her mind, where other secrets were still hidden, thought that he was a part of her forgotten past.
But she had begun to remember a Misha. The name came to mind after she had accepted who Anton was to her, and later, while she walked in back of her family’s dacha. Misha. It was a part of the cascading memories that Hannah could not explain to herself, nor understand.
They had a connection. It would explain why John Smith had sought Hannah, offered her employment, fostered her career. That connection was in the distant past, though. As a boss, he had been remote, rarely seen. Certainly, the constant pain that distracted Hannah put some distance between them. He must have known secrets about her that Hannah had not known. Misha. He had kept her secrets safe, even from Hannah herself.
For now, though, it was enough for Hannah to deal with the lost memories of her parents, her family’s homes, her birth, and her lost languages. Where John Smith fit into that would no doubt come in its own good time. And the others? The world of Anton and John Smith seemed to have many connections. Hannah would leave that for now.
She placed her fingers against the familiar spot at the back of her left ear, the spot that now held no pain.
She powered down the notebook, looked to the small cubicle store where Cleo was making some sort of purchase. Hannah walked toward Cleo as she gathered up a new package and hefted her travel tote and hand bag. She looked so much at ease, as if she had slept well and traveled in comfort these past several days. Young Cleo had grown into her own during this unforeseen parade of events.
“I will trade you all your Ukrainian cash for the tickets I have purchased,” said Hannah.
Cleo pulled out the cash, handed it to Hannah. Hannah placed the computer, the bus ticket, then the airline ticket receipt in her hands.
“You’re not coming, are you?” asked Cleo.
“This is only the fifth day we have known each other,” said Hannah. “Did you realize that?”
“I have known you for quite a while longer.”
“On paper. In person, I have an idea it has been quite a bit more difficult than you may have wanted.”
“What are your plans? Why did we have to sneak off this morning? So many questions. Did you have any idea about John Smith?”
“No. Not a bit,” said Hannah.
“So. At least tell me where you’ll be. Otherwise I might worry.”
“Young Cleo, I think you are over the worrying. I think you are making your own self-discoveries, and it did not take you to reach 50 years old to get there.”
“You answer questions like no one I have ever known.”
“I’ll tell you my plans,” said Hannah. “I have three weeks more of my vacation. But I have a lost childhood I have to account for.”
“And what will you do after the vacation? I thought all this following you around was to get you to come back to work.”
“It seems more complicated, doesn’t it?”
“For instance, what happened at that non-university in Kyiv?”
“Whatever happened, it has brought me great relief.”
“And why did you really leave your passport?” asked Cleo.
“I think mostly so I wouldn’t change my mind, partly so that efficient Carlos would get distracted for at least long enough to let us slip away.”
“You’re slipping away? Away from Anton even?”
“I think Anton knows what I do before I do it,” said Hannah.
“Yeah. He’s a bit scary, that one.”
Hannah smiled, as if smiling was for her commonplace, and pointed at the waiting buses.
“Number 42. It leaves in five minutes and drops you off right at the airport. Go. Five minutes. You don’t want to make a habit of missing busses.”
Still, Cleo waited.
“You made me change my shoes. I could run to the bus if I had to. It’s just over there. And anyway, there’s only one last thing to say.”
“Good bye,” said Hannah.
“No, not goodbye. Thank you,” said Cleo.
Thursday, 8:45 AM Panamá City, Panamá
Cleo walked into her office, poured one cup of distilled water and three drops of cucumber oil into her diffuser, then turned it on.
She looked forward to a day, or perhaps a week of catching up writing her reports. Reports of behavior, reports of people’s backgrounds, reports of where interesting people lived and what they did. She was relieved to be back in her comfortable space. She couldn’t wait to start her day.
“Welcome back, Cherie.”
Sandra stepped into the office, surprising Cleo with her early arrival. And coming to Cleo instead of having her attend to Sandra’s beck and call? Had things changed?
“Good morning, Sandra. It’s so good to be back. Home. It’s a lovely place to be.”
“Well, let’s not ramble. You’ve no doubt got some catching up to do. Work, work, work around here.”
“Speaking of work, Sandra. Are we entirely done with the Hannah episode?”
“Done. Finished. Why do you ask?”
“I just remember JS once referring to ‘them’, someone else who was looking for Hannah.”
“Probably Anton, right?” said Sandra. “And you found him.”
“No, that doesn’t sound quite right. John Smith knew all about Anton.”
“One street-contact and you’re second-guessing everyone? Granted, it was rather extended and you performed wonderfully. But, it’s done, Cherie. And it was fabulous. Everything is fine. Stupendous, in fact.”
Sandra waved from the door as she left. Cleo liked the tone of the conversation. She felt included, equal. But she did not like Sandra’s glib reassurance. Sandra hadn’t been along on the adventure. She didn’t know what Cleo knew.
Cleo pulled up her calendar. At the end of the month, she could take some time off. She logged in to her travel account and booked a ticket to Kyiv.
Cleo wondered what they were having for breakfast at the rooming house, and sat for a long moment remembering the aromas and recalling each wonderful dish that had been placed before her. She touched her hair and smiled.
Thursday, 7 PM Staroyemesto, Ukraine
Hannah sat outside under the arbor, watching evening fall around the small garden yard of the dacha Natalia had arranged.
The neighborhood had adopted her. Quietly, allowing the privacy she craved, they had acknowledged her presence with head nods and greetings in the street, then given her the welcome of acceptance, privacy and protection. It had even taken Anton three days to find her. She had expected it to be much more like three hours. Hannah was very grateful for the quiet and the time to think.
In that time, she had made her decision.
She knew what her dilemma was almost without Misha explaining it during their conversation at the bus terminal. She knew she held some key, something unique stemming from their time at the folga zdaniye, the tin foil factory, the medical facility. Misha had confirmed it.
“You, only, Khanna malyshka, came away from your childhood with your talent intact. Others had the pain, same as you,” he had said, “but never the gift. We need to know why we can turn yours on and off. And how it can be done. You have a debt to pay.”
“This debt I never accepted of my own will,” Hannah had said. “I had no choice in childhood. Now, I do.”
“Help me undo the harm my father did, Hannah.”
And that had been the end of their conversation.
His words would always bring a sting to her eyes and a remembered pain. She was beginning to understand her enormous debt to Misha. He had guarded her all these years, waiting for some change in her abilities, some change in Hannah herself. His motivation might have come from his own guilt, but he had done a service to the others from their childhood. Every time she thought of Misha’s words, she also remembered her own. Her reply had been honest, but contained an underbelly of shame.
Hannah’s hand crept to the habitual spot at the back of her ear. How much did she like being without pain? How much did she want her talent back? Her decision would impact others, but it was hers alone to make. She tried to put Misha’s words out of her mind. She was no longer Khanna malyshka. She had transformed into Hannah Antrim, then Hannah Black.
Which Hannah/Khanna would she be now that she had made her decision? Trouble. There was always trouble in life. Could she choose peace over problems?
Thirty days later, July 7, Chernihiv, Ukraine
Cleo stepped off the Boryspol Airport bus, the same one she had taken from Chernihiv to Kyiv’s airport 30 days earlier.
She felt for the slip of paper that JS had carefully written for her. Handwritten, because by the time she and Sandra had figured out how to call up a Cyrillic computer keyboard, John Smith had easily, in Russian, written down everything Cleo needed.
She looked at the letters now, complex gatherings of lines and twists, some looking like the Greek letters she used to see above the sorority house doors as she walked to classes at college. She thought one looked like a stepped-on spider and another was a backwards ‘N’. Cleo couldn’t read them, but she knew it contained Hannah’s address and directions for the taxi driver to the remote village of Hannah’s family dacha.
Remote? That’s how JS had described it. Cleo looked out onto the roadway and knew she could almost get there herself, so vivid were her memories of the place. She lifted her hand to call a taxi.
And then, just like that, she was back in this unreal world. She was glad she was coming right from the airport. Going into Kyiv itself would have been too much temptation. Maybe after the visit to Hannah.
Summer’s heat had settled in. People still walked along the roadways, but the women dressed in sleeveless tops and cotton skirts, and carried fans. The men wore tight short sleeved tee shirts and long pants, and found places in the shade to sit along the highway. The fields, still green, looked wilted, but trees covered the landscape with their offerings of cool retreat.
The taxi stopped at the dacha next door to Anton’s. Cleo began to step from the car.
Out from the gate bounded two 40-something men, calling back to the house in English, waving and nearly running over each other in their race to the taxi. Cleo stepped quickly aside.
“The scoundrels,” she said. “You are not mythical creatures.”
Michael nodded and Rico patted Cleo’s cheek.
“Bye, Hannah Banana,” said Michael, turning back to the house with a last wave.
“See you next month, Hanny,” called Rico.
Cleo walked through the gate, so like the one next door, and found Hannah standing on the porch dressed in a sleeveless top and a cotton skirt.
“Good god,” Hannah said. “I hope they don’t come back next month. It will take me a week to achieve a sense of peace again. Yelling in English all the way to the road. Inexcusable. Makes living here difficult. Carlos’s visits are much more calming. And his Russian language is coming along nicely.”
In a moment of crisscrossing events, Cleo relaxed, laughed, then spoke. “So. New place.”
“Welcome to my family’s home.”
“Are you living here now?” asked Cleo. “You are more than a week past your vacation deadline.”
Hannah turned toward the interior. Cleo saw a bandage on the back of her head near her left ear.
“What happened here, Hannah?”
“Ahh. You were right about the university, but wrong about the restroom facilities. It was the scanning wand. It deactivated the connection that aided my learning language, but only temporarily. Now, it has been removed permanently.”
“There was something in your head? And now you no longer have your ability with language?”
“I no longer have the pain,” said Hannah. “Perhaps I can’t learn any new languages as I once did, but I still know ten. I have decided that is enough, and that having no pain is a very, very good thing.”
They stepped into a square room, the duplicate of Anton’s. A new-looking open staircase led to the second floor. A large fan cooled the interior. Electricity. Hannah took Cleo’s bag and placed it next to the couch.
“Is this really your home?” asked Cleo.
“I am learning that home is a very fluid invention. But, yes, this is my family home, from which my parents fled. We went to Poland first, then England. Sometime when I was not yet three years old, I became a little American girl, and there was never any looking back.”
Hannah led Cleo on a tour of the dacha, giving Carlos and Anton credit for the improvements and the scoundrels credit for the mess they left behind.
“And now, we cook, Ukrainian style,” said Hannah.
She handed Cleo a large container and balanced two herself as she pushed aside the lace curtain covering the door’s opening and led Cleo out to the garden. There, Cleo refreshed herself at the water barrel and used the up-dated outhouse. It all seemed so normal, even sitting around the barbecue, waving paper fans to cool themselves.
Cleo watched as Hannah stood, leaned over, reached for the poker and spread out the flaming wood. She settled again on the bench, slow and peaceful movements.
“What do you think of all this, Hannah? Everything has changed.”
Cleo waited for Hannah to answer, watched the quiet movement of her fan, and waited some more before Hannah finally spoke.
“We have some control over what happens in our life. But we are also at the mercy of our parents, or our cultures, or our times. How can we look back and wish things had been different? Things are what they become.”
Cleo thought about Hannah’s calm words. What they had experienced wasn’t calming. There were many mysteries about their time together, and Cleo had spent a month wondering about the one that wouldn’t let go.
“I’m curious about your Misha. What’s his real name? The whole thing?” Hannah recited a long string full of consonants and shushing. “Now I see why he picked the name John Smith,” said Cleo. “Have you talked at all since you got here?”
Hannah’s hand began the movement toward her bandage, then stopped.
“See the house across the street?” she said. “It’s Misha’s family dacha. He and Anton have looked after all three – my family’s included – since they were young adults.”
“How is my friend Anton?”
“He thinks he is arranging my life. He has managed to get a passport for Khanna malyshka, in my family’s name, a Ukrainian passport for a forgotten Ukrainian girl. At times, we sit with a cup of tea and cook barbecue out here in the garden.”
“What are you doing here?” asked Cleo.
“Ah, I see the coals have settled,” said Hannah. “Time to put the meat on. We’ll let that cook, then mound the mushrooms and parboiled potatoes on top.”
“You’re not going to answer my question, are you?” she said.
Cleo saw Anton approach from beyond the fence that separated the back gardens.
“I think I see our guest. Come, Anton,” said Hannah. “We eat soon. Barbekyu.”
July 7, Staroyemesto, Ukraine
Unfortunately, Anton had brought with him celebratory vodka. He had apparently known Cleo would approve. Hannah put out her hand to cover the third shot glass as he poured the drinks.
“No vodka, Hannah?” asked Cleo.
“My birch tea is hearty enough.”
Hannah raised her cup of tea.
“Bud’mo,” Anton raised his shot glass.
“That’s not the toast you made last time, Anton,” said Cleo, hesitating, her fingers around her cup, a laugh waiting to emerge.
“I have learned,” said Hannah, “that there is a usual order to giving a toast here. But I think Anton has an order all his own in mind.”
“Ukrainian toast. Bud’mo.” Anton downed the first round.
“Bud’mo.” Hannah sipped her tea.
“Bud’mo.” Cleo drank the oily liquid, shook her head. “Wow.”
Her American English approximation of the Ukrainian word made Hannah smile. What a pleasure to hear an easy word, enjoy the context, the honest fun and the interplay of languages.
“Vodka homemade,” said Anton.
Hannah heard the simple pride in his voice, an emotion transferred through sound in all languages. Anyone would notice, anyone would draw the same conclusion. Anton poured two more glasses, in a motion offered a tot to Hannah, who shook her head.
“Russian drinking toast. Za zdarovye.” He raised his glass.
“Za zdarovye,” said Hannah.
“What you said,” said Cleo.
They toasted. The meat on the barbeque crackled. Hannah bent over the grill, turned the meat, placed the mushrooms and potatoes on top, then a layer of fresh dill over it all. Hannah picked up a plate from the table.
“I think we should fortify ourselves. Cleo, take a piece of bread and dip it in the salt. It’s a custom I’ve picked up in the neighborhood.”
“Bread and salt,” said Anton, pouring a third round.
Hannah offered the plate to Anton, then took a piece of salty dark bread for herself.
Cleo picked up the toast for the third round. “Cheers.”
“Cheers,” said Anton and Hannah.
Two small shot glasses were upended and one tea cup sipped. Hannah noticed Cleo close her eyes and take a deep, irregular breath, the effect of vodka, no doubt. Then she spoke, her words sounding tight, like they had to be forced out.
“I brought you a gift from JS.”
“Misha?” said Hannah. “Sending me gifts?”
“I’ll go get it.”
“Don’t hurry,” said Hannah.
Cleo seemed eager, but her announcement gave Hannah a chill that a sip of the birch tea couldn’t warm. Cleo hurried back with the box.
“So,” she said. “A perfect solution. It makes everyone happy. Everyone gets what they want. You, freedom. JS, your talent. What is left of it.”
Cleo paused and Hannah could see that she was hoping for a smile. Hannah smiled. Cleo handed her the package. Hannah patted the present, then placed it to the side.
“Soon, soon,” she said. “Our dinner wants some attention. These coals can be overenthusiastic if they are not watched closely.”
“We’re right here, Hannah. Everything is fine. Open the package.”
“Anton promised he would show you the garden before the sun goes down. The present can wait.”
“Dah, dah. The garden.”
Anton got up from his seat, answering the hint and led Cleo on a short tour up and down the five rows that he had recently planted. Hannah laid plates and silverware around the table, setting their places for dinner. The sun was beginning to set, and the heat had become an intense memory instead of an oppressive reality. The day itself seemed to sigh. Hannah looked around her garden yard, still amazed that this place and she had a joined past.
The meal sizzled its readiness, Hannah piled the meat, mushrooms and potatoes together on a platter and placed it on the table. She stepped to the water barrel to wash her hands, then called out to the others.
“Wash up. We eat.”
After the pre-meal shot of vodka, Hannah listened to the mealtime sounds. Plates scraped, utensils clicked, and then the wonderful vocal sounds of the pleasure of good food. Hannah appreciated this respite from the tangle that had been her life for more years than she wanted to number.
Anton lined up the glasses for a mid-meal toast. Hannah tested the teapot, poured herself a fresh cup.
“My brew,” said Anton. The drinks were again up-ended.
They returned to meal, finishing up with one last toast, a silent salute to the three of them.
Anton then placed his shot glass onto the table top, then slowly folded his arm to cushion his head as he nodded off to sleep. Hannah looked to Cleo. But Cleo had already sunk onto her arms on the table top. A snore came from Anton.
Hannah moved the unopened package away from the comfortable remnants of their meal. She knew Misha had sent the latest audio/video device. Hannah wouldn’t be learning to use it. Not yet. Maybe never. Hannah placed her hand over the patch on the bone behind her ear. There was no sensation of heat or pain. But the memories had not yet faded.
Hannah picked up her tea cup, glad her companions had not stayed awake for a last toast.
“To having no pain, no trouble,” she said.