Sounds of Death

The first chapters of novel by Anna Orehova

For Roman, Varvara, and the rest of the incredible gang

Thank you, guys, for giving me this story.

Chapter 1. New lease on life
It was unusually quiet outside the Krasnodar airport terminal early in the morning. The taxi drivers were having a lazy smoke while waiting for the next flight to arrive, the coffee and pancake vendors were still closed, and the car park only saw the occasional vehicle. The drivers unloaded their sleepy fares with heaps of suitcases and sped right off, anxious to get out before their free fifteen minutes were up.

Nika was standing at the curb, waiting for her boss, and critically examining her latest selfie. The third one in the last five minutes. Her skin still looked pale, but that was ok, as the Instagram filter would take care of that in no time. Her smile was wistful, mysterious, exactly as she had intended. Her head tilted at a perfect angle, with the bald spot behind her ears out of sight. But only time could help with her stupid hairdo. Five to six months down the road, a year at most, her hair would grow back, and her crew cut (or “ultra-short garcon”, as the hair stylist had said with a Cheshire cat grin the day before) would turn into a bob. If she was lucky. The new earrings, on the other hand, looked great! The silver rings emphasized the line of her neck, and the upside-down triangle of green gems accentuated her brown eyes. But most importantly, the words “Krasnodar Pashkovsky Airport” were clearly visible in the background, there was no need to even apply a geotag.

Deciding that was as good as it was going to get, Nika typed ‘How do you like my first day on the job?’ and posted the photo. She thought for a moment and then added: #Spain2018 #BarcelonaWaitForMe. Let her former workmates know that she was not staying in, wiping the tears off her laptop, mourning her frustrated career and the sorry state of her finances, which caused her to sell the said laptop. Let them see that she was rearing to go, looked like a million bucks, and showed no trace of moving from hospital to hospital for six months. Let them think that she was fit as a fiddle. Nobody would know the truth anyhow. Not ever.

A cool breeze was blowing over her bare shoulders, the sun was reluctantly waking up. Another couple of hours, and the city that had cooled over the night would be smothered in a heat wave once again. The Krasnodar summer was making a mockery of the calendar as was its wont. So, what if it was the beginning of September? It was hot and exhausting as at the height of the season. But a short three hours later Nika would be at Domodedovo, taking a direct flight to Barcelona, which also had heat and sunshine, but also the sea, palm trees, delicious food, and a job. A job that Nika knew next to nothing about.

The previous morning, Genie blindsided her by dumping on her, the way she liked to do, all the news at once. “I'm being hospitalized for pregnancy complications, and tomorrow I'm to go on a business trip. My boss is going to kill me. Your visa is still valid, right? I'll change the tickets, and arrange things with the hotel, and Val will feed the cat. Go, Nika, do me this favour. It'll do you good, and you could use the money.”

The last argument was particularly compelling. Nika lost her job four months ago. And by "losing" she meant that her boss had waited for the sake of appearances until she was released from the hospital and then messaged her on WhatsApp, asking her to drop into HR for her pink slip. He explained that customers would steer clear of a marketeer whose name was mud on the web. No, she was not responsible for the accident. No proceedings were brought against her, she had a clean record, and that seemed to be it. But a pedestrian was dead, the online rumour mill was in full swing, and her condition was of no concern to anybody. Nobody gave a shit that she still dreamed of the dark figure that threw itself under her wheels, of stepping on the brake, of wrestling with the steering wheel. She dreamed of crying out, that was probably the last thing that Nika had heard distinctly in her life.

What followed was six months of silence. Her mum's face was in tears, and her dad's words, “I'll sort everything out.” Which Nika had learned to lip-read, and her own words, “I don't want to see anybody.” She had spent two months in the hospital, recovering from a surgery that had cost her long curly hair. The bruise faded, but her hearing never returned. “Fourth-degree hearing loss” the words were like a court sentence. It was as if her inner equaliser had lost its low frequencies, while the high range had been dialled down to such an extent that only a few sounds were discernible, and she had to guess at what was being shouted at her.

She spent nearly another three months at home, crying her heart out until she felt dizzy and nauseous, and having no clue as to what to do next. Sometimes even wondered if her life was worth living.

Her parents brought her food, and Baffka rubbed her legs, entertaining her mistress with the same selfish love that only cats are capable of. Genie came to visit and send words of cheer.

The brand-new hearing aid that her parents had given her sat on the bedside table, waiting for its time. Which would never come. After two attempts to appear in public wearing that contraption, Nika understood that she would not be able to stomach a third. In a crowd, sounds blurred into a hissing and thumping white noise. Speech was nearly impossible to make out. She had to repeat her questions, ask people to speak up or even go as far as offering them her pad, shamefaced, and explaining that she was hard of hearing. The aid was no solution but only served to attract sympathetic and surprised looks.

Nika learned from her brother about another way to return to the world of normal, cochlear implantation. Mike lived in Berlin, worked as an IT techie at the NewHear medical centre, and so he told her about a solution that, as it turned out, had for sixty years now been giving a new lease on life to those who had lost their hearing. The curved contraption fits behind the ear, and the transmitter (a round tablet some five centimetres in diameter) is attached to the head via a magnetic connection to the receiver, implanted under the skin. The outer component captured sounds using microphones and sent them to the electrode array implanted into the cochlea. From there, the signals were transmitted to the auditory nerve.

Nika went to see an audiologist for advice, and she confirmed that cochlear implantation was an excellent solution. “You will hear almost as well as before! And don't be hung up about your looks, your hair will grow back, and nobody will be any the wiser!”
Nika realized her hair could not hide such ugliness, much less if there were two bumps on her noggin. But that was hardly a reason to pass on an opportunity to hear again. For a chance to return to the world of the normal, she was willing to kiss the audiologist's feet. Kisses, however, would not be enough. An implant for one ear cost thirty thousand euros, ideally, she needed two. Nika was already entertaining the idea of selling a “superfluous” kidney while putting together her eligibility paperwork (it turned out she had a chance to get a free implant from the government) when a miracle had happened.

The company that employed her brother launched a new experimental programme, and Mike arranged for Nika to be admitted to it. German doctors offered a next-generation cochlear implant. They succeeded in packing all outside components into a seemingly ordinary earring, a neat little silver ring. The receiver no longer had to be implanted under the skin, which meant there was no bump on the head. The electrodes implanted in the cochlea received a signal wirelessly.

What followed was a trip to Germany, medical tests and a bunch of new terms that Nika had no conceivable use for in her previous life. Before going into surgery, she had to sign reams of paperwork. Accepting so many obligations that a normal person would not commit to in a hundred years: a release of liability, the owner's manual for the innovative solution, a custodial liability form and a consent to present herself for an examination once every six months and to keep an online diary. But the most important piece of paperwork was a non-disclosure agreement. She was forbidden from talking about the secret piece of tech. Not that Nika intended to. The consequences of that accident were only known to her parents, brother and Genie, whom she had sworn to secrecy.

Then she had one more operation. On waking from anaesthesia, Nika had realized that cochlear implants were already in place. No, she was not aware of them, and is it, anyway, even possible to feel a foreign body inside your skull? The implants became a part of her. A sci-fi writer's dream come true: a cyborg with a digital chip in a human brain. Strike that. Not in the brain, the doctor explained that implants went into the inner ear. There was no craniotomy or any other scary procedure. With a neat cut behind the ear, the embedding of electrodes in the cochlea and Bob's your uncle, you awake from anaesthesia and are free to go.

The fact that the procedure was over was evidence by the dressing around her head. And the nurse who appeared shortly thereafter offered her a pad with the most important words in her life written in her brother's hand. ‘You will soon hear again.’
Nika spent four weeks in Berlin, staying put in Mike's flat and reading feedback from patients with conventional cochlear implants. They were unanimous in saying that sounds did return but not overnight. It took some people a few days, others even years. It all depended on your age when you lost your hearing and long you had lived without an implant. In any event, fellow sufferers advised patience, therapy and self-training. And also lip-reading. A skill that would help get the drift if some words failed to register. Nika watched a few video lessons, learned to identify key sounds, and then kept re-watching Charodei, a Soviet musical she had loved since childhood, in an attempt to lip-read the characters. Sometimes she succeeded: the subtitles validated her guesses, but more often than not the meaning remained elusive and escaped her.

And then she was invited to try on her earrings. The first connection was a disappointment. Nika felt as if she was in the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit: the medical staff spoke in cartoonish voices, and the sounds came across as computer-generated, as artefacts. Then there were adjustments, sessions with an audiologist, and a fortnight later she cracked a smile, probably her first in six months.

Nika had come back from Germany ten days ago and was still getting reacquainted with the sound-rich world. Her internal equaliser had been fixed. It was up to standard but not defect-free: the computer-like sound was less pronounced but still present. Some words got distorted and sounded unfamiliar. For example, it took her a long time to understand what her mum meant when asking, “Where are you going with your life?”. Until her brain delivered, after long processing and translating, something meaningful. “Where do you keep the knife?”

But Nika remembered the voices and the manner of speech of her near and dear ones, and so she “recognized” many words rather than “hearing” them. Strangers, on the other hand, took some getting used to. She had to fill in the blanks from the context or lip-read cues. It was particularly hard in a noisy environment, the sounds blurred and blended, and her head buzzed from the multitude of squeaking, rustling and clanging sounds. The result was that she managed to make out half, at best, of the words she heard.

Standing outside the airport terminal, she luxuriated in the revving of cars, the chirping of birds and the shuffling of shoes on the asphalt. The passers-by were exchanging unintelligible remarks, and the PA was announcing that check-in was now in progress for the Krasnodar-Domodedovo flight. Her new boss, however, was still a no-show.

The digits on her phone's screen indicated a quarter to seven, the take-off was an hour away, but they had to check in and clear security first. And it wouldn't hurt to sort out their luggage either. The suitcase would have to be checked in, that goes without saying, her purse would be a carry-on, but the “product” was a bit of a headache.

“Keep it with you,” Genie insisted. “As a last resort, use the boss's business class. Say, he wanted it this way. They know what's good for them, they'll let you through.”

The cool bag with eighty jars of black caviar cost more than all of Nika's stuff, including a Chinese-made phone, bought as a replacement for the iPhone broken in the accident. To be sure, she was not about to check in such a valuable item. What if they lose it! The “product” would have to be cleared through the customs, however; otherwise, it would be seized. The bag was full of paperwork proving that the caviar was travelling to a trade show.

There were considerably more people around her now. Men and women were in a hurry to check in for their flights, babies were sleeping in buggies or prattling cheerfully on their fathers' shoulders, and surly teenagers were marching at a respectful distance from their parents, emphasizing their independence.

Finally, a black car stopped a couple of metres from Nika. She didn't have to glance at the logo to recognize the elegant curves of a Porsche, and Genie, too, had told her about the boss's cool wheels. Nika attempted a welcome smile but froze, surprised to see the man who emerged from the passenger side. A sharp nose, blue eyes, hair more salt than pepper, with only a few black strands visible. He looked younger than his fifty-three years, forty-eight tops. He looked exactly like the photograph that Nika viewed the day before on the website of Tsar's Meal, but who would have thought that her new boss would be a shorty!
She herself needed a stool to reach the top shelves, Roman Gordeyev, however, turned out to be some ten centimetres shorter. Some scrawny dude in a polo shirt, slacks and a gym bag. Nika came to her senses, stopped staring in astonishment and, grabbing her suitcase and the load of caviar headed for the car.

“Veronika Semyonna?” Her new boss offered her his hand, American-style.
Nika did not like being addressed by her forename and patronymic, least of all when “Semyonovna” was abridged to its vernacular version, “Semyonna”.
“Just Nika is fine,” she said, accepting the handshake.

She heard a shrill “hooooot”, then another one and more. The Porsche had blocked the lane, causing a traffic jam. Irritated, the drivers leaned on their horns to discipline their fellow driver. Roman winced and dug in his ear.
“ Hooting, are we? What clowns!”

A tall chubby guy of twenty-five or so appeared from the driver's side.
“ Dad, lemmidivintathakar park? Werinaway.”
Dad, let me drive into the car park? We're in the way, Nika translated for herself.
No, the son of her new boss was not lisping or gulping his words. However, the combination of “stranger” plus “poor articulation” plus “noisy environment” queered her pitch. Another loud honk sounded.

“Well, you go on home,” Roman grumbled. “Veronika Semyonna and I will manage ourselves.” Amazingly, her new boss was quite easy to understand. It was possibly because he was standing closer or articulated better. Roman smiled at Nika, while his son pulled out of the boot a chequered tote bag, like those used by shuttle traders.

“Sure, you'll manage?” He walked up to Nika and gave her and then her bag an appraising look.
“Nothing much to manage here, I don't think.” Roman patted his son on the shoulder. “Go on, Rom, off you go. Take care of your mother, see that she takes her pills on time… well, you know it yourself.” ‘Rom’ nodded and winced on hearing another honk.
“Veronika Semyonna, let me help you.” Roman snatched the cool bag from Nika. “Come on, chop-chop, check-in will be closed any minute now.”

He headed for the entrance, leaving Nika behind with the chequered embarrassment and the suitcase. ‘Rom’ shrugged in sympathy and dashed off to get the Porsche out of the way.

“That’s where five years of uni studies payoff, in fetching and carrying for any old oligarch,” grumbled Nika.

Judging by its sharp corners, the chequered bag contained boxes with leaflets. Genie warned her that the boss would bring them. The bag weighed a full fifteen kilograms, and its short handles made it unwieldy. Nika felt like a cat in funny YouTube videos, they always got into tight corners and couldn't extricate themselves. The suitcase, the chequered bag, and the handbag to boot, which kept slipping off her shoulder, to add insult to injury. She had to stop and adjust it. Long story short, when she reached the check-in counters, Roman was already stealing nervous glances at his watch.

They checked in quickly, the boss's business class ticket allowing them to jump the queue. The check-in girl wanted to send Nika back into the queue, implying that was where she belonged, with the rest of the economy crowd. But a look from Roman was every bit as effective as a VIP ticket. The girl forced a polite smile, checked in the luggage and issued a boarding card.

The caviar was allowed in as a carry-on, and Nika sighed with relief, one less problem for her. As they checked in their luggage they proceeded to the security check. Roman wasted no time in foisting off the bag on Nika while telling her, hands in pockets, how lucky he was to have Genie and how sorry he was to learn that she was taking maternity leave. No, no, no, he is certainly happy for Genie! However, she's been his right hand and support for seven years now, and how is he supposed to cope without her, and will he be able to find a replacement for her?

Roman accompanied his last words with a meaningful look at Nika, letting her understand that a business trip was in no way a guarantee that Genie's job would be hers for the asking. Nika smiled politely, although the dude was already getting on her nerves. She asked him twice not to address her as “Veronika Semyonna”, but Roman seemed to mock her on purpose.

“Venonichka Semyonna, darling.”
Nika hated the pet name of “Venonichka” even more than being addressed by her forename and patronymic.
“Venonichka Semyonna, please buy me a bottle of cola and a snickers bar. I missed my breakfast.”

He peered at his phone screen and mumbled something else. Nika did not make it out but refrained from asking him to repeat it. After losing her hearing, she developed a silly complex” she was ashamed to ask people to repeat themselves. She knew it was stupid but she could not bring herself to admit to being hard of hearing.

Shifting the bag from one shoulder to the other, she scanned her surroundings for the nearest café. Genie had not warned her that the job description of executive assistant included the duties of a porter and a secretary. On the other hand, Nika, beggars can't be choosers, eh? When staying in day in, day out, she interspersed her bouts of weeping and researched on forums for special people with mailshots of her CV to all manner of outfits. But it turned out that nobody was in the market for a deaf marketeer, even with five-year hands-on experience under the belt. Besides, the story about the suicidal surgeon who threw himself under a car was still making the rounds on the web. Nika cast around for vacancies in other fields, even toying with the idea of dusting off her degree and trying lawyering, but her hearing loss precluded any chance of an office job. She had no idea of what to do next, the folder with rejected job applications was getting ever thicker, suggesting that a dedicated cabinet may be in order. And her savings, meanwhile, was being washed away with lightning speed like imported foodstuffs from the supermarket shelves following the embargo.

She thought she would have to survive on her disability allowance, which barely covered her utility bills and cat food. How would she pay off her mortgage? And what about groceries? If she had known early on about the secret solution of the German researchers… but by the time Mike came to her rescue, Nika's savings were but a memory. To afford her trip to Germany, she had to sell her car for parts, which was totalled. But that was not the end of her financial woes, another mortgage bill waited for her at home. She was ashamed to borrow from her parents, she was a millstone around their necks as it was. Groceries, treatment, utility bills, her mum and dad took care of it all. They even paid her previous mortgage bill and said that she owed them nothing. Nika learned by chance that they were also in debt because of her (she saw a message from her aunt on her dad's phone). She had to resort to extremes, and take out a microloan. Although Nika was well aware of what that could mean. A loan shark outfit called “Payday Loan” charged an exorbitant interest rate, but that gave her some breathing space.
And then Genie's call came as if on cue.

She certainly did not relish the prospect of feeling like an office girl after a career in marketing with a salary of a thousand dollars, but she was fresh out of options. She had to do something to come back to life. So Nika took out the bank card that Genie had given her for corporate expenses, bought a cola and snickers and caught up with Roman when he had already cleared passport control.

Her boss put the chocolate bar in his pocket, took a look at the bottle of cola and then at Nika. “Venonichka Semyonna, darling, are you asleep on your feet? Or did you wash your ears with a soft drink in the morning? I told you, not from the fridge! And what is this?” He dropped the bottle into a litter bin, took his phone, keys and wallet from his pockets in a flash, slipped through the security arch and was soon lost from view behind the shop windows.

Nika froze, feeling a flush spread across her face from her cheeks as far as her ears. Her boss could hardly have chosen the soft-drink metaphor on purpose, but he still managed to hit her where it hurt, calling her a deaf fool, not to put too fine a point on it. She wanted to sink into the ground with shame. And also, with hatred for herself (why on earth wouldn’t she ask him to repeat his request) and for that old fart (who would want warm cola anyway?!).

Dumping her bags on the belt of the X-ray machine, she joined a short queue, trying to ignore the sympathetic looks from a bloke behind her. The signs on the security arch invited people with heart monitors, prostheses and other medical devices to opt for a body search. But Nika thought nothing of such signs. The surgeon who operated on her explained that she had nothing to fear, she could safely go through security checks at airports and shopping centres alike. She had already verified that when travelling back from Berlin, and if challenged, she could always show the certificate for her cochlear implant.
So Nika stepped through the arch without giving it a second thought. In her right ear, she heard a click, a whistle and the next moment something cracked in her head. Pain dimmed her vision.
Chapter 2. Red Team
The whistling in her right ear was eating into her brain, Nika clutched her head in an attempt to alleviate the pain, which was radiating from her temple to her forehead and the back of her head. She finally had the sense to take off the earring, the sounds shifted to the left, and the whistling disappeared, but the pain continued unabated.

“Youohkey?” The security guard had been supporting her by the elbow all that time.
Nika watched the woman's lips, trying to understand her. One earring was doing a poor job of processing sounds, she even considered, stupidly, dialling up the volume.

Aryefeelinpoorly? Shallicalladoctor?”
‘Are you feeling poorly? Shall I call a doctor?’
“I'm all right.” Her tongue refused to cooperate. Nika picked up the bags delivered by the belt. “I… thank you, I just need to sit down.”

Holding onto the wall, she somehow managed to reach the shops and was just aware enough to not fall as she was squeezing past the counters with cigarettes and chocolates. She spent the ten minutes remaining until boarding in the toilet, trying to recover. She swallowed a painkiller and kept trying her brother's number. He of all people should be able to understand what had happened. Maybe the implant malfunctioned? Could it be dangerous? Does she need to go to the hospital? Mike did not pick up, she had to leave him a voicemail.

Then she was on her flight to Moscow. Nika was nauseous, her head was splitting. She was already sorry she had gotten on board, in her mind's eye, she saw images of black liquid from the shorted implant spilling into her inner ear and from there spreading to her brain. Why liquid? Why black of all colours? She was prey to some atavistic fears, and the realization made her headache even worse.

Will she have to bail out on the trip? And what if Mike says that she needs to get to Berlin as soon as possible? She should have stayed at home. Wrap herself in her security blanket and get used to her implant instead of travelling on business. Her empty refrigerator and equally empty wallet pushed her out of her comfort zone for a good reason, however. She had been promised five hundred euros for four days in Barcelona, with another two hundred disbursed by Genie for business travel expenses. That money would be covering not only her microloan but also a couple of provisioning trips.

Nika missed the period in her life when her bank card account was always in the black. She could comfortably afford high-end items, dining out, a fitness club membership and foreign travel twice a year. She had an interesting job: meetings with clients, marketing strategizing and creating advertising. She missed Friday night get-togethers at her favourite restaurant when she and the girls would stuff their faces with barbecued spare ribs, washing them down with dark beer.

After her accident, she received a couple of encouraging messages, and that was the end of their support. And what did you expect? She knocked down a person! It mattered not a pin that the surgeon with the funny surname of Podstavkin had swallowed a bunch of pills and, clinging to what remained of his consciousness, stepped into the traffic, wrecking not only his own life but also Nika's.

‘It's like he died twice,’ her dad had written on her pad. ‘The pills would have finished him off. He left a note and was waiting in his office for the end. But then his wife rang: his mother-in-law had had a stroke, so Podstavkin dashed off home. You are not to blame, Rony; hang on in there, I'll take care of everything.’

Semyon Lovkin, a litigator, well-known not only in Krasnodar but also far beyond, rescued his daughter from her predicament. In such situations, the driver is presumed to be at fault, but Nika's father managed to prove that she could not have avoided the accident. She was not charged, the case was closed, and no crime was found to have been committed. Personal attacks in the media, however, continued as before. Nika and the knocked-down pedestrian were taken to task on socials and blogs, and talking heads on local TV channels claimed that Podstavkin was murdered and his murder made to look like a suicide. The investigator and everybody who could be bought was said to have been bribed. Her dad's track record was re-examined in hindsight in an attempt to prove that he had always won his cases through bribery and back-door dealings.

The waters were undoubtedly being muddied by the wife of the knocked-down surgeon. She sniffed out Nika's email address and sent her a message that promised: “This is not over, bitch!” Nika reread the message, again and again, knowing that she shouldn't, but not being able to help herself. She kept reliving the fatal seconds: the dashing shadow, the screech of brakes, the impact… if she had noticed him a bit earlier if she had swerved… She knew she was not to blame, but could not help thinking about the fatherless teenage girl, could not forget the crumpled body on the road.

That was the worst flight in Nika's life. No sooner had the plane touched down at Domodedovo than she rushed off, making a beeline for the toilets. She washed her face and swallowed another painkiller pill. While Roman was drinking tea with a piece of chocolate gateaux in a café, she found a quiet corner with available seats and video-called her brother.

The BlueTooth on the earrings was turned on by touching the central stone. An excellent alternative to headphones, the sound was transmitted straight to the implant. But the best thing is that there was no interference, the words came across loud and clear. Almost as before, except for the barely perceptible electronic buzz, which could be chalked up to communication imperfections. It was like hearing again with her own ears for Nika.
“Relax, Ro, it is chock-full of safety features! Looks like the frequencies have drifted. I talked to the techies, they are confident that you're in no danger,” said Mike. His short hair stuck out, he didn't have time to comb it. Her brother kept IT hours: he got up late and didn't make it back to bed until the first light.

“This is good news.” Nika watched through a window a green and white plane racing down the runway. “What do I do? Keep wearing one earring only?”
The plane took off and soared towards the clouds, with the next one following it onto the runway. Mike yawned.
“The guys say you should wear the earring. Watch your sensations and record them in your diary, this is important for the experiment. If it proves too much, take it off. And I'll meanwhile arrange for you a paid trip to Berlin for an unscheduled adjustment.”
Nika nodded and took a beauty kit with the NewHear logo out of her handbag. Inside was a velvet box with the right earring, a wireless charger and pre-soaked wipes.
“How are things in general?” Mike's brown eyes were closely watching her from the screen. “How's your new job?”
“Can't say yet.” Nika wiped the earring with a tissue. “The boss seems ok, time will tell.” She wiped the earring once again, fully aware that all she was doing was delaying the moment when she had to put it on. She was reluctant to re-enter the world of pain.
“Go on, do it,” Mike said, realizing what she was doing. “I'm here for you.”
Nika smiled and attached the little silver ring to her earlobe. The whistling reappeared right away, annoying but not as loud as before. There was no pain.
“Well?” Mike put his face closer, his head filling up the screen. He seemed to be trying to read Nika through the screen.
“It's whistling.” Nika shook her head, listening to her sensations. “But it's not so bad.” The sounds became louder again. That was a plus, and as for the whistling, she could probably learn to live with it.

An hour later, Nika was looking through her window at the cloudy porridge that was hiding Moscow. She could hardly keep her eyes open, it was probably the effect of the pills. She was anxious for the 'Fasten Seat Belts' sign to go off so that she could finally recline her seat and draw down her window blind. Meanwhile, she had to squeeze her eyes against the bright light to obey the safety rules.

Her seat was uncomfortable, the airline tried to squeeze every last bit of profit and pack as many passengers as possible into the cabin. Narrow seats, no headrests, very little leg room. An in-seat screen to watch videos, a blanket or a sleep mask were things Nika knew she could never have. And that was how she had to spend nearly five hours in the air. Once in Barcelona, on the other hand, she could expect to find a hotel, a soft bed, an air conditioner, and an indispensable walk to the beach in the evening.

In an attempt to kill time, Nika looked into the pocket of the seat in front of her and took out the only entertainment available on board: a glossy magazine. She could not pass on an opportunity to check out the advertisements. It was a professional habit and she couldn't help herself. Marketeers probably examine banners and hoardings a dozen times more often than others do. Nika loved to review the work of other professionals, spot faults and (which happened much less frequently) scoop new ideas.

She leafed through the advertisements for watches and perfumes, which admittedly were never known for their originality: slim beauties and stylish hunks posed, showcasing the products. An excellent solution tried and true. If it ain't broken, why fix it? After all, rule number one of advertising is, ‘Run with it while the going is good’.

On a page with a housing estate advert, Nika heaved a heavy sigh. “NEW YEAR, NEW FLAT”. The habit of using block letters was evidently here to stay. Ripples in a pond. Marketers run with the ideas of others, without bothering to learn the basics. They want to make their message stand out, but what they achieve is the opposite. Such copy is passed over by the human eye because it is difficult to read, with no visual clues available. Lower-case letters with indents and outdents, now that's a whole new ball game. She pitied the customer who paid for such a shoddy job.

Nika riffled through to the end and, having found nothing more of interest, went to put the magazine aside when she spotted on the back cover what couldn't be described other than as “da bomb”. A beauty in a lacy top on thin straps, a police cap and shades was holding a walkie-talkie against scarlet lips. The slogan read: “Your security is our job”. Nika burst out laughing. Was it possible that the moron responsible for that truly believed that people would entrust their life to a firm that looked more like an escort service? Even if they did employ young women, they should have designed a less revealing uniform. Sex sells but not in security.

Still chuckling, she slid the magazine back into the pocket, and at that moment the 'Fasten Seat Belts' sign went off with a quiet zing. Passengers started moving, spilling out into the aisle. A short two minutes later, there was a queue for the toilets. Her eyelids drooping, Nika pulled down her window blind, reclined her seat and wriggled trying to get comfy.

“Dear assenges, we are flying at tenousand metres, the OAT …”
“Gran, I'm thirsty!” A young girl standing in the aisle was tugging an elderly woman in spectacles by the hand.
“… on behalf of the crououou …”
“I wanna drink!” The girl was drowned out by an explosion of laughter and patter in Spanish, a group of tourists was discussing something loudly, leaning over the backs of their seats.
“ … you will be offered ...oft drinks and breakfast…”
Beep-beep, crack, hiss, beeped someone’s phone behind her.
‘Sweet berry, sweet berry, and where's your Mary merry?’ The beat of a pop hit could be heard through the headphones of a young woman sitting next to her.
“Drink, gran, drink!”
Nika took off her earrings. Any way you cut it, deafness did have one benefit: it made sounds disappear. Like in a silent movie, the Spaniards were gesticulating and opening their mouths, and the girl in the next seat was nodding her head in sync with the music that Nika could not hear. Even the engine noise disappeared. Only the loud “driiink” was now rendered as a barely audible “iii” the minimum that a fourth-degree hearing loss left her with.
Nika placed the earrings on the wireless charger, put them away in her purse and closed her eyes once again. “A superpower, my foot”, she thought falling asleep.

Somebody was shaking her by the shoulder.
“What?” Nika blinked, trying to find her bearings. An air hostess was leaning towards her from the aisle, her mouth opening and closing.
“… ahahah … erer...” These were the only sounds Nika managed to hear. The girl in the next seat cast her a disgusted look.
“Just a sec.” Nika took out the velvet box of her bag, picked up the earring marked with an engraved “L” and attached it to her left ear.

Her world was rocked by a wave of noise: clanking, screeching, speech, laughter and shouting, the sounds blurred together into a symphony being played by an orchestra of madmen. Nika closed her eyes and sat back in her seat, her brain needing a couple of seconds to switch gears from silence to a multitude of sounds. She was shaken by the shoulder once again. Nika opened her eyes.

Anyouheeree?” The air hostess's lips moved, filling in the gaps: ‘Can you hear me?’
“I can,” muttered Nika. The air hostess was frowning, and her neighbour tilted her head, intrigued. What were they thinking? They must have taken Nika for a loony, reaching for her earrings while still half-awake, and then either falling asleep again or zonking out.
“Roman Alentinaaach asks you to isitim in the business class,” the air hostess rapped out with a fixed smile.

“Thank you.” Her brain succeeded in making sense of the cacophony: the engine was roaring, her neighbour's headphones were leaking music, and the Spaniards were carrying on with their racket. Nika attached an earring to her right ear, and the cursed whistling came back right away, subdued but insistent. Picking up her purse, she squeezed into the aisle and headed for the toilets.

It was still two hours until touch-down, Nika, asleep, missed “soft drinks and breakfast”; the in-flight menu, however, promised light refreshments. Her stomach was rumbling for attention. But Nika had nothing, not even a chocolate bar, all the food she had was the caviar jars in the overhead locker, which were off-limits.

She only tasted the famous Russian delicacy once and did not find it all that appealing. Red caviar tasted way better. Genie explained that at the conference in Barcelona Nika was expected to offer the treat to punters and hand out product leaflets.

Normal people climb the career ladder, but Nika was travelling in the opposite direction, from a marketeer to an errand girl. The last time she handed out leaflets was on her Saturday job when in uni. The world of advertising had always pulled and beckoned her, but her parents insisted that she get a job in her profession. So Nika worked for a full year in the legal department of an energy company, whilst trying to learn the ropes in her dad's litigation practice. Then there was an opening in an advertising agency, Nika passed an interview and found herself in her element.

She perused books on marketing and PR, took online courses and kept her nose to the grindstone ten hours a day, sometimes even seven days a week. It was her dream job. A great team, exciting challenges, good money, what more could you ask for? Well, as it turned out, some support when her life crashed and burned. And to think that on that night she was coming back from a meeting with a client. On a Saturday, her legal day off. She should have cancelled the meeting, taken another route, should've, could've, would've…

Nika squeezed into the toilet cubicle, splashed some cold water on her face and looked at her pale face in the mirror. She had built her career over five years with no knowledge, skills or connections. That meant she could do it again. Her track record was proof of that! So, who cared about bad rap and hearing loss, the Barcelona trip was just the beginning, the important thing was that the earrings stop failing her.

Her path to the business class was suddenly blocked. Flight attendants rolled a trolley into the aisle and started moving down the plane, handing out drinks and sandwiches. It was well near impossible to get pass them, the only option available was to dive into a side aisle and wait until they passed.

Nika sighed, realizing that her boss's whim would make her miss the snack. The trolley was slowly progressing down the cabin, the passengers left in its wake were unpacking their sandwiches, the others released their tray tables in anticipation and were casting glances along the aisle. The cabin filled with the aroma of salad leaves and mayonnaise, and her stomach started rumbling again.

Nika stopped by the premium spot, next to the emergency exit. Not only did it have seats two in a row, but it also afforded ample leg room, which was obviously enjoyed by the passengers, a bespectacled brunette with an untidy beard and a chubby guy with shoulder-length brown hair. The chubby one was asleep, his head against the window, and the brunette was reading something on his phone.

The whistling in the right ear was getting on her nerves. In a bid to kill time, Nika took out her pad and started leafing through the notes dictated by Genie. The US hotel chain Sefer expanded into Barcelona a mere year before. Its manager, Debby Hall, was arranging a conference for restaurateurs to promote the hotel and secure suppliers. Genie, having sworn Nika to secrecy, explained that the boss couldn't, in fact, care less about that conference. If he had wanted to run a full-tilt PR exercise, he would have sent a task force to Barcelona. No, Roman called in some favours and got the lowdown on an event that had yet to be announced, which meant that only a few knew about it. So, he intended to hustle and secure a major order ahead of the pack.

In December, as is the cherished tradition in the US, Debby Hall was staging a charity date raffle featuring, wait for it, iconic Barça footballers. Such an event in Barcelona would be attended by celebrities from all over the world, and celebs are supposed to be treated to gourmet food. One such contract could take the boss's black-caviar business to a whole new level, giving it the green light not only in Europe but also beyond the continent.

Nika wrote “Debby Hall” in large letters on her notepad and underlined it several times. To be sure, she was a mere promoter/secretary/porter on that business trip, yet it would be stupid to pass on an opportunity for a permanent position. A CEO assistant was a great launching pad for a new career, boring tasks could be supplemented with advertising; after all, Genie used to be in charge of it. That meant she had to impress her boss. Roman had no idea that Nika knew more than any entry-level employee about his business. Tsar's Meal was a key account at the Tarantula agency, where Nika had spent five years of her life.

It was she who captured an order for the promotion of the black-caviar business. She ran that project and knew all there was to know about the product. She enjoyed working with her best friend, Genie did not argue. She listened attentively and approved the most daring ideas. And Nika, inspired, went creative, trying to boost sales and brand recognition.
She explained to Genie that Tsar's Meal's target audience were people for whom eighty bucks for a small jar of caviar was not extravagant. It made no sense to cater to those who can afford the delicacy once a year. Such buyers supported the image but couldn’t bring home the bacon. So, there was no point in following the stupid advice of the rival advertising agency and staging weekly discounts and attention-grabbing promotions. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, a high-end product is bought precisely because it is expensive.

People pay for the image projected by advertisements, this was marketing 101. A gentleman in an Armani suit lights up his cigar, sipping brandy. Latte is bought by workaholics, who are always busy and drunk on the hoof from a takeaway cup. Espresso is usually taken with a cigarette. It is, after all, the rare consumer who knows his brandy and can tell arabica from robusta. And even fewer people know that nicotine neutralizes caffeine. People put a premium on image, not effect.

That is why in Tsar's Meal’s advertisement, the noise at the festive table dies down when waiters place servers with black caviar in front of the guests. Then the camera smoothly pans to the party's hosts, a dazzling beauty in a little black dress and a stately gentleman in a suit. They are putting caviar away with gold teaspoons as if it was raspberry jam rather than a delicacy. The slogan is in keeping with the sophisticated milieu: “Let them know this is not a luxury for you”.

Nika smiled, remembering how, when devising the slogan, she played on the particle “not", the eternal enemy of copywriters. The brain usually filters out “not”, converting negation to assertion. “Not addictive”, an advertisement claims. A reader scanning the ad concludes that it is addictive and subconsciously distrusts the product. “Do not pass by!” a shop window urges, but the brain reverses the message, telling the potential customer that shopping here would be a waste of time and to keep walking.

In Tsar's Meal's slogan, however, “not luxury” delivers a two-pronged message. To an attentive audience, it whispers: a premium product will emphasize your status. And those who skip over “not”, it teases, eliciting a contrary reaction: “What do you mean, this is a luxury for me?! I can afford it!” As a result, both are on the hook.

Nika was roused from her brown study by a push in the back. Her pad went flying from her hands, nearly missing the glasses of the brunette in the premium seat, and ended up landing dead centre in his lap.

“Sorry,” grumbled the woman who had jumped into the aisle following the kid who had delivered such a perfect push to Nika.

The brunette picked up the pad, but instead of returning it to Nika, he became engrossed in her notes. Nika extended a demanding hand, but the brunette kept studying the page, ignoring her gesture.

“Do you mind? This is private.” Nika grabbed her pad from his hands.
The brunette adjusted his glasses and smiled at her.
“Sorry, I got drawn in by your handwriting. Are you going to the HoReCa at Sefer?” His neighbour, the long-haired fattie, half-opened his right eye, glanced at Nika and then pretended to be asleep again.
“I am,” Nika answered gruffly.
“First time to Spain?” The brunette would not be put off.
“Yep.” Nika disliked the bloke from the get-go. She hated unkempt beards, and the brunette was sticking out every which way as if he had neglected it for two months if not longer.
Teejoosoter. Icken, una, cheese sandwiches.” Fragments of the hostesses' patter reached her from the aisle, the trolley with sandwiches being already close to their row.
“Then forget about the conference.” The brunette was like a dog with a bone. “You'll do better visiting Park Güell, this is one reason for revisiting Barcelona any number of times.”
Nika had heard about the famous work of Gaudí, but architecture held little interest for her. She preferred the beach to sightsee, and so she intended to spend all her leisure time by the sea.
“Why don't you take the girl on a date to the park and show it to her,” the long-haired said out of the corner of his mouth without opening his eyes. The brunette shrugged indifferently.
“I don't know about a date, but a tour is easy.”
The trolley stopped by their row.
“Tea, coffee, juices, water. Chicken, tuna and cheese sandwiches,” the air hostess delivered mechanically.

The brunette switched his attention to the snack food, and the long-haired finally opened his eyes and gave Nika a wink. “Relax, I'll make sure that he finds you a Sefer and takes you on a tour of the park.”
On the word “tour”, the guy smiled conspiratorially and gave it air quotes, for which he was rewarded with a surly look from his neighbour.
“Don't bother,” muttered Nika, sliding into the aisle and heading for the curtains separating the business and economy classes. Flirting with strangers was the last thing on her mind at the moment.

Roman turned out to be the only passenger in the VIP section, the financial crisis seemed to have made the Russians pull in their horns. Sprawled in his seat, he was sipping orange juice and munching on crisps with a boring look. On his in-seat screen, Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future was playing soundlessly, with headphones rolled into a doughnut on the wide armrest and a blanket on the floor.

“Veronika Semyonna! And here I was thinking you had taken another flight.” Her boss giggled and pointed to the seat next to him. “Please sit down. Want some juice?”
“Thank you, I'd love some!” A cup of juice in five hours, now we're talking.
“Olyushka, be a love,” her boss said, addressing the air.
“ ... os, Romantinovich,” came back from behind the curtain. Nika sat down and took out her pad and pen.
“I want you to do something for me of a somewhat… hmm... delicate nature.” Her boss put his cup down on his armrest.

Nika was closely watching his lips, hanging on his every word. Delicate, ok, she could do 'delicate'. What can be worse than handing out leaflets?

“While you were sleeping, I took a walk around the cabin to stretch my legs. And I noticed something: it turns out our competitors are sharing a flight with us.” He gave Nika a meaningful look, and she nodded, indicating that she was all ears. “You see, I'm travelling to Barcelona for a reason. HoReCa, caviar tasting, all that is well and good, but I have more important fish to fry. I would like to secure a large orde fromesefer.
‘Order from Sefer’, Nika translated automatically and nodded again. Her boss was clearly talking about the date auction.
“I'm confident that our competitors are unaware of that order, I got my information through backdoor channels. Better safe than sorry, however. You, Venonichka Semyonna, are a young girl, attractive… so use your feminine wiles. You'll meet those clowns at the conference, and find out what they are really after in Barcelona.”
A quiet buzz started in her head, like a current running through the wires. The doctor warned her that this could happen under stress. The heart speeds up, and the implant picks up the sound blood makes when flowing through the veins.
“I'll try,” mumbled Nika.
“There you go.” her boss's face spread in a smile. “They are by the emergency exit. Red Team as I call them. One wears glasses, the other long hair.”
The buzz from the wires grew louder, and the blood in her temples started pounding with such force that even the cursed whistling in her right ear was drowned out. Nika recalled the interest with which the brunette was examining her pad, the very page where it was written in large letters: “Debby Hall”. And “Barça Date Auction” underneath.
She felt her palms go moist, her throat dry.
A great start to a new career. Looks like I've just betrayed a trade secret to our biggest competitor.
Chapter 3. Take selfies, Ladys!
Heathrow was abuzz with travellers coming and going and people picking them up and seeing them off. Every forty-five seconds a plane would come in for a landing, and unending crowds of tourists were moving from the check-in counters to passport control, getting lost in endless duty-free shops.

The man who today called himself Michael Milner ensconced himself in a seat by the boarding gate and was examining his brand-new passport: four international stamps, slightly dog-eared pages and a ten-year-old colour photograph, with his right cheek as yet unscarred. That would come later. The forger had delivered a perfect document as always, the border officer had not suspected a thing.

“Michael, Mike, Micky,” Milner muttered in a barely audible whisper.
The name was unfamiliar, like new shoes not yet broken in. “Michael” sounded official, a bit patronizing, a form of address most likely to be used by his boss or teacher. The friendly “Mike” would be used by his mates in a pub. And “Micky” would be a term of endearment used by a fussy mum.

Milner winced and decided to drop “Micky” in favour of Mike for introduction purposes. Although he was unlikely to meet many people, the business trip would take a couple of days, hardly any longer.

It just so happened that Milner had completed nearly half of his job without leaving his home. What remained was a tiny shadow of a doubt, which would be child's play to dispel. The client shouldn't have worried that the search would take weeks. It took Milner a day.
Modern technology plus human stupidity opened doors that would have taken a ram to beat down a mere five years before. The prey had played into his hands: she had taken a selfie and posted it on Instagram. The image search engine made short work of locating the target photo. And it was like Christmas come early: the selfie was hash-tagged, telling Milner his destination. He was even a little bit disappointed at what a no-brainer it turned out to be. The internet had done his job for him.

Milner pushed his passport into his pocket and looked out of the window at the plane, already connected to the gate by a jet bridge. A pleasant female voice announced on the PA, “Dear passengers, boarding has started for flight BA0486 to Barcelona.”
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