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By Sarai Curtiss's best analysis, Sasha Bednov had less than twenty-four hours to live. Just long enough for his mother to watch him slip into a coma, for his governor-candidate father to win the election and for Sarai to hear the door of opportunity close with a soft and definitive click.
So much for trying to ease suffering and save lives in the vast wasteland of Siberia, Russia.
She'd trade everything she'd worked for over the past two years for the right medicines to save this thirteen-year-old boy's life. Medicines she would also like to have had to save the countless others she'd tried to treat.
She took his limp hand and pressed it against her forehead, frustration pushing to the surface, burning tears into her eyes. She closed them, fighting a whimper. Sasha lay in the bed, his pallor gray, his shallow breathing giving off a sickly sweet odor. Maybe if she'd gotten here earlier. Then again, an earlier diagnosis would have meant intervention. Drugs, dialysis, maybe a transplant.
Not a chance of any of that in a country that still couldn't manage indoor plumbing for seventy percent of its inhabitants.
How did an otherwise healthy teen die of acute renal failure?
She heard conversation outside Sasha's bedroom door, where bodyguards and a maid murmured platitudes to his mother. Sarai set down his hand, ran hers over his smooth skin. Maybe, if she was in Moscow at the International Clinic...definitely if they were back home, at Johns Hopkins. Sasha would be heading home in a week, pink cheeks, a smile in those blue eyes.
Sometimes, despite her years invested in the backside of Russia, she hated the motherland. Lovedthe people. Hated the lack of resources.
Loved the friendships.
Hated her own limitations.
All she prayed for was that God would use her medical expertise to minister to the lost in Smolsk, and to be His tool, His girl. Instead she got heartache and failure. It made a girl wonder what she might be doing wrong.
She rose, hearing the muffled sobs from the next room. She stood above Sasha's bed, her throat thick. Genye was out there, Bible in his hand, hopefully speaking words of comfort to Julia Bednova. But what comfort, really, could he offer an atheist who had to say goodbye to her only son? Her only child.
Pain centered in Sarai's chest and she fought the grip of despair. God, please...intervene.
She opened the door, stepped out into the tiny hall. Even for a palatial Russian politician's flat, the penthouse apartment felt cramped. Sterile. Fake plants hung from the gold wallpapered walls, framing a beveled mirror. Under it, a mahogany-veneered side table held a Kazakhstani vase. On the black velvet settee in the next room, Julia sat hunched over, her head in her soft, manicured hands, looking every inch the trophy wife in her size four turquoise suit, her alligator stilettos. But her broken expression and the trails of mascara down her sculpted face as she looked up told Sarai the truth.
Grief would wedge through the hairline cracks in her composure and furrow scars that would mark Julia for eternity.
She understood scars. Sarai had never recovered from her own broken heart. Not really. In her darkest, most private moments, the day she walked away from Roman Novik still felt as raw, as searingly painful as it had thirteen years ago.
And she had a Savior who gave her life purpose beyond that moment. Julia had--what? A powerful husband, a bodyguard, a chauffeur, a glamorous apartment and enough fur coats to clothe every child in orphanage twenty-one back in Sarai's adopted village of Smolsk.
"Nu, how...is he?" Julia rose, extended her hand and Sarai caught it. Julia's long fingernails pressed into Sarai's palm and Sarai opted to pull the woman into a hug. She felt Julia's bones dig into her as the woman trembled. Sarai hung on a bit longer than Julia might have expected for a medical doctor.
Over Julia's shoulder, Sarai glanced at Genye. Beside him, his wife and fellow M.D., Anya, held the telephone receiver, calling for an ambulance. Sarai shook her head. It wouldn't do any good. Russians brought their sick to the hospital to die. They would find no hope in the barren, roach-infested, concrete-chipped halls of Balnitza eighty-three.
Sarai helped Julia to the settee and gave Anya a help-me glance, not wanting to make matters worse by delivering the news badly, in distorted Russian.
Anya crouched next to Julia and slowly, deliberately, gently told the woman that her son would die.
An hour later, Julia's wail still echoed off the sides of Sarai's heart. A wail that sounded painfully familiar, painfully close.
She'd heard that wail one too many times in her secreted, most frail places. The sound of being alone in her darkest hour.
Sarai prescribed a sedative, and one of Julia's bodyguards administered it along with a shot of vodka. Sarai tried to step in, to ease the shot glass from Julia's grip.
The woman glared at her.
They took the stairs down as they left, Sarai still elevator-shy after being stuck in a box the size of a telephone booth for two-plus hours the previous January. Genye seemed more subdued than usual. Anya reached for Sarai's hand.
Sarai had piled way too much hope into this meeting, and her Russian assistants knew it. She recalled the way her heart raced, her mind plowing ahead to opportunities and permissions this divine appointment might yield. Yes, she could admit she'd started to think like a Russian over the past two years. Friendships. Contacts. A favor here, another returned.
Helping the son of the governor-elect just might have given her desperately needed permissions for medicines and equipment for The Savior's Hands Medical Clinic. Maybe even funding.
Shame roiled through her. Since when had her help come with strings?
Never. Not now. Not in the future. Still, after a decade serving as a medical missionary around the world, it might put some significance to her 24/7, 365-days-per-year sacrifice to see lives changed.
Maybe God had simply forgotten the petite blonde trying to save lives in the middle of nowhere. It sure felt like it.
They emerged into the foyer of the apartment building, signed out with the storge, then exited to the street. The security door locked behind them.
A popping sound and an explosion made Sarai jump. "What was that?"
"Neznaiou! Get down!" Genye put his arm around Anya, and they crouched behind a shiny new Lada. Sarai ducked behind a black Mercedes and peeked over the hood. Overhead, cirrus clouds fractured an otherwise blue sky. In the distance, a plume of black rose beyond the skyline of nine-story buildings that ringed downtown Irkutsk. Smoke tinged the air and Sarai heard sirens wailing, as if in mournful response to the sudden chaos.
Crackling, like the sound of fireworks, raised the fine hairs on Sarai's arms.
"That's gunfire," Genye said.
Sarai glanced over at him, saw history streak across his aged face. Before becoming a man of God, Genye had done serious time as a Spetsnaz commando--special forces-- soldier in Afghanistan. If he said gunfire, she'd believe him.
"What do we do?"
"Stay here." He rose, ran to the door of the apartment building. Pounded. "Let us in!"
Sarai watched as the storge shook his head. Oh, swell. Let the nice doctor and her friends perish on the street.
As if in response to her thoughts, a rumble, and the sound of metal grinding against itself rattled the air. She watched, paralyzed, as a T-90S tank rolled down the street. Thank you, Genye, for that military armament lesson last May Day parade.
Because, really she didn't need to know about the firepower, the thermal imagers and the Explosive Reactive Armor painted in camouflage to know that something was very, very wrong.
Right here, in the relatively quiet capital city of Irkutia Province, central Russia, population six hundred thousand. A nice city. A city where one might find Pepsi, or even Mountain Dew. A city that had working telephones, the Internet and even a decent pizza joint. And, on a good day, hot water and electricity.
This did not seem to be a good day. This day contained a tank. She stared at it, and the soldiers dressed in jungle green camouflage following behind it, armed with Kalashnikovs.
She rose, and a shot whizzed over her head, chipping concrete off the building behind her.
"Get down, Sarai!" Anya ran over, and Sarai's knees burned as Anya pushed her into the sidewalk.
"What's going on?"
"I don't know." Genye pulled out his keys. "But we must get out of here, back to the village. Come on."
He crouched, running over to their Nissan Largo van across the street. Keeping low, he unlocked the door, pulled open the sliding passenger door. "Poshli!"
Anya took off to his command to "move it," obviously completely trusting her soldier-turned-pastor husband. Sarai froze.
"Sarai--run!" Genye yelled. He pushed his wife in, turned and made to dash toward Sarai.
An explosion at the end of the street knocked Genye to the ground, smashing his face in the gravel. Sarai ducked. "Genye!"
Dirt rained down on the cars, a puff of residue blanketed the road. Gunfire erupted, sounding closer. Screams reverberated as background noise against the grumble of tanks and marching feet.
Sarai buried her head under her arms as her blood coursed hot through her. It was the Moscow coup all over again, complete with tanks and Molotov cocktails and Roman Novik lying in the street, bloodied.
Not again. She wasn't going to lose him again.
She found her knees, gathered her feet beneath her. "Roman!"
A hand fisted her hair, yanked her onto her backside. The flash of a knife, then dark eyes found hers. "American, go home," a man growled in English.
No, it wasn't the Moscow coup. Because, this time, Roman wasn't there to save her.