Miracle From Ukraine by James Herbert Harrison
Irina Balabanova is a beautiful Ukrainian girl, twenty-seven years of age and heartbroken. John Masters, a middle-aged American businessman, travels to eastern Ukraine on an ill-advised romantic venture, and is stranded in Kharkov with the onset of winter. Despite their wide differences of culture, language, and generation, the two are brought together in a whirlwind of love and adventure.
But their dreams of a life together are threatened by the acts of an extremely jealous Ukrainian State Security officer, who will stop at nothing to stop Irina from leaving their native country to marry an American. With perseverance and divine intervention, their love story unfolds in the most incredible way.
Inspired by actual events, Miracle From Ukraine is a story of international intrigue, faith, and romance.
Excerpt from Miracle From Ukraine © Copyright 2023 James Herbert Harrison
John took a shuttle flight that ran daily from the Cape Girardeau Regional Airport to Lambert International. Upon exiting the small aircraft, he entered the terminal and made his way toward his gate in preparation for his departure to Chicago. A former boss in Atlanta once told him he should never make important decisions when you're emotional, advice he always valued but couldn't apply this day. Once settled and waiting to board, he dialed up his parents’ phone, and his mother answered on three rings.
“Mom, I’m in St. Louis, getting ready to fly out to Kiev.”
“My, this is sudden. So, when is her interview?”
“I don’t know,…yet,” John replied and gave his mother the long litany of events, or lack thereof, that had occurred over the past three weeks.
“You know this doesn’t sound too good… And there’s no sense in us trying to talk you out of going back over there,” his mother stated, knowing her oldest son all too well.
John paused before answering. “Johnny knows to come to your place after school, Mom. I’ll call when I get there. Love you all.”
“Love you too, John. We’ll be praying for you.”
After yet another long and sleepless night, Irina entered the kitchen in dire need of some coffee. She picked up her phone to check for missed calls and messages, noticing the battery being nearly dead. This is strange, I know I plugged this in to charge it overnight. It had to have been unplugged… Dimitri!
There was now little mystery as to where Kuznetsov had received such detailed information over time about her calls and she assumed Dimitri had also snooped around the apartment for any other incriminating information he could find. The damage had now been done and the only remaining question was how she would get rid of him.
Setting the issue with her tenant’s betrayal aside, Irina decided to send John an email message, one that she hoped wouldn’t break his heart as much as it was breaking hers.
Dear John, I am sorry you have not heard from me. Because of issues within my family and a police investigation on me, I cannot emigrate to America in the foreseeable future. I hope you will forgive me. You will always have a place in my heart.
Love, your Irina
PS: Feel free to transfer the money still in my account and cancel it. I will try and pay you back the rest someday.
She sat and proofread the message, preparing to hit SEND when she heard a knock on the door. Who could this be at this time of morning? Momma and Papa or Alika would have called before coming over here… And they never knocked before entering anyway.
Irina opened the front door and standing before her in the hallway was a young woman, perhaps her own age and one distant in memory, wearing an official-looking female uniform and the SSU badge displayed prominently on the collar. Irina saw a red flag of concern flash before her, which immediately instilled an extreme sense of dread. “Yes?”
The young woman struggled to recognize the lovely Irina Viktorivna Balabanova, as the woman facing her looked terrible, one who appeared to have not slept, washed, or applied an ounce of make-up in days. She thus held up a copy of her photograph for credence, while also handing over a prepared handwritten memo and signaling with an index finger to her lips to be silent. Irina read the scribbled note, looking up at her with a confused blank expression, and then the SSU agent leaned forward to whisper in Irina’s ear.
“I am Calina Zhukova, from the State Security of Ukraine, Kharkov Oblast office. Your apartment may have listening devices. I suggest we talk outside, perhaps around in back of the building.”
Extremely wary about the nature of this visit, Irina also knew she had best cooperate with this female officer. She nodded and hurried to don some clothing while the official woman waited, and stepped out into the corridor, closing the door behind.
The two walked quietly down the hall together and toward the stairway, descending to the first floor, out the rear building exit, and into the small courtyard when Zhvikova asked, “May I address you as Irina?”
“Yes, of course,” Irina replied, her pulse rate starting to subside, if just a bit, as if realizing this woman may be a friend and not a foe, although still suspecting the probability of the evil Colonel Pavel Kuznetsov somehow being behind this.
The woman looked around for bystanders, already knowing there were no security cameras overlooking the rear of this particular apartment complex. She guided Irina toward a park bench in the far corner, away from the building and under a large shade tree where the two sat down together.
“I work in the SSU office. My superior is Colonel Pavel Kuznetsov, a man whom I believe you are quite familiar.”
Irina’s facial expression turned from being serious to genuinely fearful.
“You need not be afraid of me, Irina. I know by the colonel’s actions that he has eyes on you and that you have rejected him in the past. He is also a man who hates Americans and gets enraged when an ethnic Russian woman, especially one young and beautiful as yourself, leaves this country for a man in the West. He has been watching you for some time now and is also getting much information from the man you live with, Dimitri Gusev.”
“I know Dimitri has been spying on me,” Irina said in a sign of resignation.
“What you do not know is he was called into Colonel Kuznetsov’s office yesterday. I know not the total of what they discussed behind closed doors, but within minutes of Gusev leaving his office, the colonel handed me a memo and ordered me to type up a sworn affidavit that he pressured Gusev to sign, stating that you had accessed the More Security Supply company codes for entry into the SSU security system. He also handed me two sealed envelopes, one addressed to the US Embassy FBI Liaison Office in Kiev, and the second to SSU National Headquarters, Emigration Security Division, also in Kiev. I do not believe this was coincidental.”
“It matters not now,” Irina replied in resignation. “I am halting my relationship with the American I have met. I haven’t even spoken to him for weeks now. And believe me, I worked at More Security Supply for five years and was nothing but a receptionist and accountant. I had nothing to do with the technical side.”
“Regarding your relations with an American, that is your personal business. But I will tell you that Colonel Kuznetsov is a wicked man and one who does not accept failure when it comes from women. He will use the Gusev statement to keep an investigation open on you indefinitely. I know that you attempted to reacquire your old position with Arkady Petrov. He would have brought you back and even given you a generous raise in pay, but the colonel stopped it cold. He was suspended by the SSU Commandant in Kiev last fall for weeks and he somehow blames you. Trust me, you have not seen or heard the last of him.”
Irina listened carefully to this government police woman, one quite attractive in her own right. “Calina? Did you not state that as your name? You were the staff agent at the SSU who disclosed this information to Marko Palenko, my father’s old boss at the petrol refinery, were you not?”
“Yes, that is true.”
“You place yourself in great peril,” Irina added, curious why she would do such a thing.
“I am not worried about Marko, Irina. He and my father are old friends. But I caution you, do not share what I have told you too openly. Colonel Kuznetsov will suspect where it came from,” Calina replied. “If you need to contact me, here is a number. But do not call me on your home phone, Irina. I have not seen the order as of yet, but the colonel may have it bugged, the same with your cell phone. We cannot listen or record calls on cell phones yet but are able to identify the phone numbers in and out of calls made.”
As the SSU staffer stood and prepared to leave, Irina grabbed her arm gently and asked, “Calina, why are you telling me all this? You do not even know me.”
The young woman briefly looked around nervously and sat back down. “I do know you, Irina Viktorivna Balabanova. I see you every time I look in the mirror. I was in love with Pavel some time ago and then learned he was a married man. I prepared to leave him but found out I was pregnant. He promised to divorce his wife and that we would have a life together, get married, and raise a family. But he backed out, telling me it would damage his career if he left his current wife and children. I was afraid and had an abortion. The operation was difficult and left me unable to conceive any more children,” the woman explained, her eyes starting to well up with an obvious painful sadness.
“Pavel Kuznetsov is an evil man who knows nothing of love but only sees young women as trophies to be won and paraded around with. He would not hesitate to do the same to any other, and right now, Irina, he has his sights on you.”
Irina listened intently, herself saddened by this Calina’s story, and realizing no matter how tragic her own life’s saga had been, there would always be someone who had it worse. “Calina, it is not my business, but how do you still work there, around that,…that monster?”
“My parents know nothing of my abortion and Pavel Kuznetsov would care less in telling them. He holds that over me. And I have to work to support myself.”
The two young women embraced each other warmly while both came to tears.
“We did almost meet before, Calina,” Irina stated emotionally. “It was at a company Christmas party two years ago. You were with Colonel Kuznetsov there. I am sorry.”
“Yes, I remember,” Calina responded solemnly. “Please do not have pity on me, Irina. If I didn’t work at the Oblast security office, I would not be able to help women like you. That is my reward.”
“I don’t know how to thank you, Calina. I hope you find happiness in your life, somewhere.”
“No man wants to marry a woman who cannot have children, Irina,” Calina replied, as she rose and strolled toward the side of the building and out to the street.
Irina sat motionless as she watched the brave young woman walk away. I have an idea! She got up from the bench quickly and ran swiftly to catch up with the SSU girl, speeding around the corner of the building, just as Calina entered the awaiting car and closed the door.
An official vehicle from the SSU? Oh my god, Calina! Kuznetsov will know you have been here!
Her terrified look changed quickly to an optimistic bewilderment as she watched the black Mercedes pull away from the curb and make a sharp U-turn before heading back in the other direction and passing right in front of her. Not easily recognized through the bulletproof and tinted window, the driver rolled it down and appeared to give Irina a friendly wave,…a slightly built man for one serving in the SSU,…and wearing a goatee!
“There will be a man who would love you someday, Calina!” Irina yelled out, oblivious to any listening neighbors or bystanders.
She stood by the curb as she watched the black sedan motor off into the distance, a sadness overcoming her as she felt the irony of getting such support from this unlikely of sources, “I even know a man like that,” Irina spoke silently to herself, becoming misty-eyed again.
Tired from the layover in Chicago, John settled in for the long trans-Atlantic flight to London, attempting to settle back in the cramped coach section and get a bit of catch-up sleep following the standard fare airline dinner. He would arrive at Heathrow at 7:00 AM local time and would be thankful for the lengthy layover, as getting routed to connecting flights at the large and aged airport was very challenging, especially for infrequent international travelers.
Per habit, John sought out an internet access source at the main terminal to check his emails, prudent in handling agenda items in his business and hopeful that something from Irina would be there, a wish not forthcoming.
John boarded and got seated on the connecting Ukrainian International flight, having a tentative plan in place on what was going to happen in the next couple days, as he felt the need to do something and face this crisis head-on, and avoiding any thoughts of possible failure.
Had he received some sort of communication while still in London, either by email or voicemail, that Irina was cancelling their engagement, he had resigned himself to cut his losses, halt travel on the spot, and return home, even as difficult as that would be. As there was nothing, the UIA Boeing 737 flew eastward over Europe while he still held out hope that a live visit could resolve whatever had come up.
Landing again at Boryspil International in Kiev, John completed the now routine formality of passing through Ukrainian Customs and Immigration and then approached the domestic flight ticket counter where, lo and behold, the same two female agents awaited, smiling at him as though it was only yesterday. There is that supervisor! Like I haven’t seen her before.
As if John had a reservation, the supervisor waved him over to an unoccupied terminal, smiling at him as she logged in and powered up the idle system.
“I feel like I know you from somewhere, Nastya,” John stated, reading her nametag.
She looked up, again smiling. “Do you fly in Ukraine regularly, Mr. Masters?” she asked as she glanced at his passport and credit card.
“Well no, but?”
“I am afraid the last shuttle flight to Kharkov has been cancelled. The aircraft has some sort of mechanical problems,” Nastya stated, still smiling.
Mechanical problems? Didn’t ground that museum piece before!… “Okay, well when does the next… Wait a minute. How did you know I was planning to fly to Kharkov from here?”
Not changing an expression, she replied, “I see you in the system. Your last ticket was purchased for travel to Kharkov. That was back in”…
“Yes, yes, that’s okay. I know when it was.” Your system also shows I bought a ticket to Odessa once and wanted a second ticket… Oh well.
“May I suggest a car rental. The agencies are right down the hall, and it may be difficult for you to rent a car in Kharkov, and actually more expensive.”
A car rental? Not very good sales people, these agents. “Very well, I’ll head to the car rental counters. Will you be the agent there, too?”
“Excuse me, Sir? I do not understand.”
“Never mind,” John replied, smiling off handedly as he gathered his passport and credit card before walking away.
Not resisting a final glance, he turned around. I know that face…
Already preparing to assist the next flyer, the ticket agent supervisor looked up toward John…and smiled.
Irina hadn’t slept a wink as she now had the burden of this seemingly never-ending SSU investigation to add to the emotional trauma regarding John. Still feeling tremendously guilty over cutting off communications with him, she decided to proceed in sending him the message she had written out early the day before. Thinking herself strong enough to finally send it, she began to feel awfully weak afterward and began to tear up, yet again.
She picked up the gray cat, one that Dimitri had given her earlier. The pet was fat and ugly as cats go, but she had gradually gotten attached to it, enjoying the sound of the purring as she stroked its fur.
You’re supposed to have nine lives… I wonder how many I get?
Suddenly she heard a knock at the door. Not a subtle, polite knock, but three hard knocks seconds apart. Opening the door, she faced the last person she ever wished to see, Colonel Pavel Kuznetsov.
Displaying perfectly white dentures that only served to accent a devious smile, he began, “Irina Viktorivna Balabanova, how pleasant to see you again.”
Attempting to hide her contempt, more out of fear than respect, she replied, “Colonel, how may I help you?”
The arrogant SSU official walked in and past her without an invite, looking around as he stood in the foyer. “Dimitri is not home, yet?” he asked, as if a formality.
“No,” Irina replied. She suspected Kuznetsov knew exactly where her tenant was.
“How old is this building?” The colonel asked, looking around as if to imply her apartment was subpar. He continued to stroll from room to room, much to Irina’s exasperation.
“I believe it was built in the 1960s. What can I do for you, Colonel?”
“I spoke to Arkady Petrov just the other day. He informed me that you wanted your old job back,” the colonel commented with a feigned expression of concern. “But he had already hired someone. A great pity, Irina. You were very good in your position there.”
What an arrogant ass! You know very well why I cannot get my old job back! “I knew the business.”
“It must be very difficult for a young single woman to support herself, no?”
“I will find a way,” she answered, now extremely uncomfortable and wishing the sinister Kuznetsov would leave.
“You are quite versed in security affairs, a talent we could use in the SSU Oblast office, Irina.”
“The Oblast has my application, from years ago,” she replied, trying to say anything to conclude the conversation and unpleasant incursion by this pompous official.
“Should you decide to move to Kharkov and work for me, I could arrange a modern apartment for you, paid for by the agency, of course,” Kuznetsov offered, believing such an offer could not be refused, considering the young woman’s current financial predicament.
“I will think about it, Colonel,” she repeated, almost shocked this wicked man could behave so casually after their earlier restaurant encounter, even if it was months ago.
“How much does Dimitri pay you in rent every month, Irina?”
“He pays me six hundred hryvnias per month,” she replied, continuously irritated at dealing with questions she was quite certain this SSU man knew the answers to.
“Six hundred hryvnias… That is about a week’s pay for you, correct?”
“Yes, Colonel. It was.”
“It was…it was,” Kuznetsov repeated as he continued to snoop around the apartment, very much to her displeasure. “You know, Dimitri may very well be suspended from his position at Petrov’s company, pending the results of the investigation on his security clearance. In fact, you yourself may have difficulty finding employment for the same reason…Hard times we live in nowadays, very hard times, Irina. But you know a man in my position”…
“I wish you to leave, Colonel!”
“You wish me to leave?… You wish me to leave?! Let me tell you something, Irina Viktorivna Balabanova! You will never leave this nation with your American lover! I have made certain of that! I know you! I know you better than you know yourself. You will give me what I want. Women always do!”
“Get out! Get out or I’ll scream!”
Irina, now terrified and backed into the kitchen, struggled as Kuznetsov placed his left hand around her neck while tearing at the top of her blouse with the right. Fearing the worst, she spied her collection of cooking knives out of the corner of her eye, arranged on a hanger below the cupboard. She was a split second from grabbing one when yet another sudden hard knock was heard at her front door. The two froze just for a few seconds when the hard knock continued.
“Open up! This is an emergency! Open or we will have to break in!”
The voice was loud and authoritative. Kuznetsov released her as she ran for the door, opening it as fast as she could turn locks and knobs. Two uniformed men walked in, carrying a myriad of tools and small tanks. Seeing the young woman in a state of distress, the older of the two inquired, “Is everything all right here, Miss?”
Kuznetsov stepped in front of her and stood erect. “What is your business here?!” he demanded, staring back at Irina sternly as if to command that she remain silent.
“Sorry for the interruption. We are from the gas company and there has been a serious and very dangerous gas leak detected somewhere in this building. We have been ordered to have all occupants assemble outside in the courtyard until we isolate and repair the problem.”
The still angry and excited colonel shot past the three of them and out the door, moving rapidly while shoving people out of his way who were exiting their own apartments, eventually stomping his way out of the building to his awaiting staff car and drove off.
Irina marched down with the other apartment owners and tenants to the courtyard, extremely thankful for the timing and trying to recall if they had ever had such a drill in the building before. Thirty minutes later, the two servicemen in gas company uniforms walked out, announcing to the crowd it was safe to return to their apartments.
Irina overheard one tenant ask if they had found the problem and the youngest and largest of the two replied, “Yes, just some loose pipe connections in the basement.”
Still in process of lowering her heartbeat, she engaged in some small talk with the two, along with a few of her neighbors, as they gathered their tools and supplies preparing to leave. She asked the older one just how long he had worked for the gas company.
“Just long enough, I believe,” he answered, smiling, before downing a huge gulp of cold water, kindly given to each of them by an elderly tenant. He then made an amusing display of using the lower part of his shirt to wipe the dripping water off his beard, a goatee.
John left the airport in his rental vehicle, a Renault Logan sedan, not clear on the overall rate he would pay for a few days but certain it would be too much if he had to extend the time on it. No sooner than he pulled out and onto the E40 Expressway, he noticed the fuel tank was down to less than a quarter tank, so he motored into a gas station just off the four-lane highway to fill up. The weather was warm but rainy, so he chose to check under the hood where he found a near-empty windshield washer tank. Walking inside, he purchased a gallon of the cleaner and topped off the small reservoir, which held just less than half of it, thus he sat the remaining half-full plastic jug on the back seat.
Left over from the former Soviet days were traffic checkpoints, something many foreigners were not accustomed to. Aside from speeding and responding to accidents, Ukrainian police would be posted every 150 kilometers, less than one hundred miles, to halt motorists and check everything from car registrations to passports (Ukrainians had to carry internal passports) to narcotics to open onboard liquor.
John’s first encounter occurred approximately a third of the way toward Kharkov and went smoothly. The officer checked his documents, reached in the car and sniffed around a bit, and happily waved John on his merry way.
The second stop was unnerving. That officer followed the same routine but asked John to step out of the vehicle, and began to go through all of the contents, including his travel belongings. John’s lack of the local language didn’t meet with any reprieve as the officer began barking numerous questions that John couldn’t comprehend. When the policeman got on his radio and began to chatter to someone, John thought he was in big trouble. The two stood side by side, leaning up against the front left fender of the Renault for what seemed like an eternity, when a second police vehicle drove up and parked right behind them, as John wished he had more hryvnias in his pocket right then. Another officer got out and the two talked for a just a few minutes prior to the second officer, who spoke a bit of English, approached John.
“You have vodka? Liquor?”
Making certain he understood clearly, John made some signs of a man drinking, then pointed to himself, and said, “No.”
The officer then began to check in the car again and pulled out the half-full jug of washer fluid. He took the cap off and took a whiff of the strong-smelling chemical, quickly grunted to himself, then promptly resecured it, and placed it back on the rear seat.
The two officers made a point of then chatting away from John, an act he thought of as folly because he would little understand what they were talking about anyway. The second officer then chose to revisit John’s documents, strolled back to hand them back over, and stood away from the car to wave the “tourist” onward as John’s heartbeat started to finally subside a bit.
He slowly pulled away, thinking he would hesitate to use the wiper washers again.
He must have smelled it on the outside… Who said this renting a car was a good idea?
John had come better prepared this trip, at least partially, as he had picked up a prepaid phone at the airport in Kiev and proceeded to call over to the Belanov Agency. They agreed that Sergei would arrange for an apartment as before and that he meet John early the following morning, planning on a day as a hired interpreter. It was well past midnight when John got into Kharkov and arrived at the reserved apartment in the same building as before.
Treating with the same security guy at the check-in kiosk, John was remembered and happily handed his key to his apartment, this time on the third floor. The place was laid out identical to the previous apartment with an entry foyer, closet and bathroom off the hallway, a parlor, a kitchen, and a bedroom. The rental was parked out on the street and locked, well it had insurance plus John had paid extra for the deductible.
He unpacked his bags and went to the kitchen, wondering if the plug-in devices here would have the same electrical problems and decided not to chance it. Strolling to the parlor, the old sofa was of different colored material but eerily the same and very uncomfortable to sleep on, he was certain. In the back of John’s mind, he would consider it a godsend if Irina would have need to stay here and the old couch would come into play as a point of conversation again.
The place was bringing back memories as John opened his laptop, connected to the apartment’s internet, and logged in to his email, seeing he had a response from Irina for the first time in over three weeks. Reading its content, John felt crushed.
Issues with her family? Police investigation? Irina?
After spending what seemed like hours wearing out the tired old carpet, John went to the bedroom and laid down, hoping to get a bit of sleep, thinking and hoping tomorrow would be a better day. Sleep was hopeless as his mind raced a hundred miles per hour.
Will I be able to find her? If so, what if things go badly? What could I do, anyway? I’m no lawyer, and even if I was, what good would that do me here?
John looked at his prepaid phone, hoping it would ring and Irina would be calling him, but then reminding himself how foolish the thought as she wouldn’t know the disposable phone’s number anyway. He thought numerous times about calling her but the shear idea of getting shut down over the phone had him spooked. No, I’m going to face this music head-on, and then let the cards fall where they may.
Irina had just left the family home for her apartment after spending most of the afternoon. She announced to them that she had broken off her relationship with the American and now her mother worried less about Mikhail going on a rampage against Pavel Kuznetsov. Irina had decided against telling them about the altercation with the colonel at the apartment earlier, knowing that would just feed the fire.
Nadine was now concerned about her oldest daughter and wished the girl had just stayed over for dinner and perhaps even a few days. She knew the cottage was a bit crowded since Alika was married and Misha had moved in, not to mention both Nadine and Alika knowing that Irina tired of her brother-in-law’s subtle but ongoing hints about hooking her up with his pal, Kolya.
The family had all seen the pain Irina went through a year ago when Daryle had left her, knew of all the sad loneliness through all those months until the weeks just before Christmas. Something had happened. She had met another guy, another American, and then saw that sparkle again in Irina’s beautiful big brown eyes.
But why did she hide it from us? Nadine pondered. Was it just the pain from her past? Or was it something else?
Irina entered the apartment just past seven, hearing a stir in the kitchen and knowing Dimitri must already be in for the evening.
“Irina, is that you?”
“Yes, it’s me.” Who else would it be?
“I have some borscht on the stove. You are more than welcome to have some with me,” Dimitri asked loudly, assuming she was in her bedroom with the door closed. “Have you found another job, yet?”
Irina suddenly appeared in the kitchen doorway showing little effort to hide her disdain. “No, and I need to make sure you pay your rent on time next week.”
“How have you been, Irina?… I mean you seem kind of down these past few weeks.”
“Why don’t you tell me, since you have been spying on me?!”
“Irina, I know you are upset with the job thing. But don’t get paranoid on me,” Dimitri responded nervously.
“You are dumber than you look, Dimitri. It was you that snooped through my phone the other day. You should have at least been smart enough to plug it back in. My calls! My emails!… Colonel Kuznetsov was here! He is the reason I cannot get a job and guess what else. Did you know he may have you suspended from your job? He’ll do that because then you will not be able to pay me rent! You think being a rat and backstabbing me would play favor with a man like him? You are such a fool, Dimitri!”
He stood stunned in the kitchen momentarily and unable to speak. Now in panic mode, Dimitri replied, “Irina, think this through. I heard from over at the SSU office that Colonel Kuznetsov plans to get rid of his main staff assistant to make room and hire you, and at double what Arkady was paying. If you take that job, we’ll both be in the clear.”
Irina could not believe her ears. “Dimitri, you disgust me! You are nothing but Colonel Kuznetsov’s lap boy! By the first of the month, I want you out of here. You hear me? I want you gone and never want to see your sorry butt here again—ever!”
My profession is online marketing and development (10+ years experience), check my latest mobile app called Upcoming or my Chrome extensions for ChatGPT. But my real passion is reading books both fiction and non-fiction. I have several favorite authors like James Redfield or Daniel Keyes. If I read a book I always want to find the best part of it, every book has its unique value.