Read an Excerpt Wiser Than Serpents
By Susan May Warren Steeple Hill
Copyright © 2008 Susan May Warren
All right reserved.
One week earlier
Yanna Andrevka hadn't spent the past ten years of her life putting her kid sister through college to watch her throw it away on some pudgy, bald American named Bob.
Then again, she wouldn't be doing cartwheels if Elena were marrying a hip, urban Russian named Sergey or Ivan, either. The very fact that her bright, beautiful sister put any man before finishing her law degree had Yanna turning the beet she was chopping into a blood-colored mash.
"About finished with the salad, Yanna?" Katya asked as she drained off the water from the mashed potatoes into the sink. Steam rose, cooking the already stifling galley kitchen. The tourists who thought that Siberia in summer still meant glaciers and bitter winds should spend a day in her apartment in August. The Gobi Desert was probably cooler; certainly it was less humid. Yanna scraped the beets into a bowl along with onions, pickles, diced cooked potatoes and cooked carrots. She picked up a wooden spoon and began to stir.
"Where's Elena? She's supposed to be back by now." The fact that her sister had lifted nary a finger for the goodbye send-off she'd planned gave Yanna sufficient ammunition to let her anger simmer. It felt better than facing the fact that in twenty-four hours, she'd be alone in their two-room flat, no one to greet her when she stayed too late at volleyballpractice, or harass her about having no social life.
She had a social life. Namely, Elena. Especially now that Yanna's other friendsVicktor and Roman had ladies who took up their free time. Ever since Elena had moved back to Khabarovsk two years ago, after getting her undergrad degree in Saint Petersburg, Yanna's life had taken on new vibrancy. Maybe it was watching Elena come into her own and blossom into a beauty like their mother. Or maybe it was living vicariously through her soap-opera romances, or listening to her dreams of life after school. Until two years ago, Yanna had seen her kid sister as a nuisance, a leech, just another price Yanna had to pay for her mother's foolishness.
Now, she wasn't sure just how she'd survive without Elena snuggling up to her when she arrived home from a date, or a class, regaling her with her latest drama.
Bob had better be worth it. Or Yanna would cross the ocean in a single bound and spike his head across his two-story beach house. The pictures did look nice, however.
"She's picking up her wedding dress," Katya said.
"I told her they have dresses in Seattle, but she says she wants a Russian dress. You can take the girl out of Russia, but you can't take Russia out of the girl." Katya looked up from the potatoes she was mashing. Skinny as a sixties-era model and wearing a pair of jeans and a sheer white blouse, Katya looked like she hadn't the strength to mash a pea. With long, bottle-bleached hair and brown eyes, the twenty-two-year-old English teacher had a ticket to Seattle with Elena. She'd continue on to Jersey to meet her prospective groom. She poured more milk into the potatoes. "I'm getting my dress from a store in New York. I already told Mario that."
Yanna swallowed a remark and turned back to her salad. She added oil, salt, pepper, and tried not to let her cynicism leak out. She should be happy for the two girls. They'd won the lottery, according to too many Russian women. American husbands. Life in the promised land. True, most women in Russia today struggled to find jobs and, when they did, pulled in less than eighty percent of the salary men did. Yanna had to be twice as good at her profession to get half the respect a man did. Still, after seeing what loving the wrong mantoo many timesand living with a permanently shattered heart had done to their mother, well, Yanna wasn't about to mess with the good thing she had going. Decent friends, a solid job, an apartment to come home to
she had more than most women could hope for.
Besides, she had already found her true love. And, even if he never knew it, their e-mail relationship was enough for her. Actually, it was probably safer, even more rewarding her way. If he never knew how she felt, he could never reject her, could he?
Yanna poured the salad into a glass bowl then, lifting it above her head, squeezed past skinny Katya and out into the family room. She'd set up her dining-room table, pulling it out from the wall and placing it in front of the sofa. Three chairs were set opposite the sofa, and with an end table added from her bedroom, she'd made seating for at least eight. The rearrangement left little room to maneuver, what with her shelving unit running across one end of the room and her television on the other. Khrushchev forgot to leave room for breathing when he designed the tiny single-family flats.
The doorbell buzzed. Yanna grabbed her key from the latch by the door and peered out the peephole. Elena smiled broadly. Her teeth looked huge in the domed view.
Yanna pulled open the inner door, then unlocked the outer door. Her fellow FSB pal Vicktor had installed the vaultlike steel barrier during the reign of a serial killer a few years back. It squealed on its hinges as it opened.
Elena squeezed past Yanna into the narrow entry hall. She toed off her sandals, setting a bag down beside her. "Guess what I got?"
"Your wedding dress?" Yanna closed the door. Elena's face fell. "Katya, you rat!"
"Oh, please," Yanna said as she brushed past her sister. "I spy on people for a living. If you think I didn't know what you were up to, you haven't lived with me since you were a kid."
"Oh, I have no doubt you have my computer and my cell phone bugged, as well as listening devices planted throughout the flat and in my schoolbag." Elena placed a kiss on her sister and scooted into the kitchen as Yanna finished setting the table.
Sometimes, she seemed so much like Yanna, it was difficult to believe not only their fifteen-year age difference, but that they had different fathers. Long, mink-brown hair, flashing dark eyes, a reserved smilethese things Yanna recognized of herself. But Elena's willingness to embrace new ideaslike Internet datingor even her belief that she could make marriage work with a man she'd never met, these were from her father, their mother's youngest and most outspoken boyfriend. Her mother had been wildly happy with Genye, the dreamer. Until he'd been arrested for drunk driving and beaten to death in his holding cell.
After that, something had died inside their mother, as well. About then, Yanna had graduated from college, stepped in and taken over the raising of Elena.
Perhaps this was why Yanna couldn't forgive Elena for abandoning her for a man. This, too, felt like a legacy from their mother.
In a few days, the only thing she'd have left of Elena would be her hand-me-down jeans and one of the matching silver lockets they'd exchanged last year for Christmas.
Katya emerged with the potatoes as the doorbell rang again. Yanna opened it to three of Elena's group-mates from school. They charged into the flat, dumping their sandals and book bags, and turned up Valery Meladze on the stereo. Yanna felt young again as the music found her heartbeat. The bell rang a second time, and Vicktor, Roman and Sarai stood just outside the metal door. Yanna's contingency.
Sarai gave her a quick hug. "How are you holding up?" She had to nearly shout.
Yanna shrugged. Although she and Sarai had only met for a summer years ago, and hadn't seen each other until this past winter when Roman rescued Sarai from becoming a political prisoner, Yanna felt as if she had known the blond American doctor all her life. Or maybe she simply reminded Yanna of Sarai's brother, David. Probably another good reason Yanna enjoyed having Sarai around.
Roman handed her a bouquet of flowers. "For the bridesmaid." He gave her a kiss on the cheek and Yanna was touched by his kindness. The Cobra captain with the tawny-brown hair and hazel-green eyes seemed so much happier with Sarai around, and the wounds he'd received in gulag had healed nicely, especially under Sarai's care.
Walking in right behind them, Vicktor caught her before Yanna could follow Roman and Sarai into the flat. Vicktor had an intensity about him, from his dark hair to his toned frame that scared away most women. But Yanna and, most of all, Gracie, his fiancée, knew that underneath that take-no-prisoners exterior resided a man who would give his life for his friends.
"Gracie said she'd meet Elena in Seattle. She's there working with a new project, so she said she could sneak away. I sent her the flight information."
Yanna nodded, hating the sudden prick of tears his words caused. His blue eyes softened, and he reached out and gave her a one-armed squeeze.
"Thanks, Vita," she said. She'd planned on asking her friend Maea national guard pilot who'd recently moved to Seattleor even David to keep tabs on Elena, and the fact that Vicktor had suggested his fiancée, well, all at once Yanna felt that maybe Elena would be okay, after all.
Yanna followed him into the family room, where everyone crammed around the table. Some merciful soul had opened the windows to her flat, and when Katya switched off the music, street traffic three stories below drifted up, adding an early evening ambience. The smell of hydrangeas and dahlias lifted from the bouquet on the table, now covered with bowls of salads, cutlets, mashed potatoes, and glasses of prune sok.
Elena emerged from the kitchen, carrying her masterpiece, a tall Napoleon cake of thin layers and abundant cream. Yanna couldn't help but notice how she glowed, just like a bride should. She'd pulled her dark brown hair back, and it cascaded in curls along the neckline of her sleeveless tank. With a hint of tan on her arms and nose, she looked about sixteen.Yanna could hardly believe this was what Elena really wanted. But then again, if Yanna were to look deeply, perhaps her dreams weren't so very different. Not really.
Someone to love her? To count on? No, that wasn't so foreign a desire.
Yanna picked up her glass of sok, raised it to the group. "To Katya and Elena. Cheslivaya Vechnaya!"
"Happily ever after," they all chorused as they touched their glasses for a toast.
He'd never eaten deep fried frog on a stick, but David Curtiss was a patriot, and he'd do just about anything for his country.
"Shei-shei," he said as he took the delicacy from the vendor, fished out a New Taiwan dollar and dropped it into the vendor's hand.
He wondered what might leave a worse taste in his mouth, fried frog, or meeting a man who had beheaded the two undercover agents who had tried this trick before David. But if all went as planned, his culinary sacrifice would lead him to the identity of Kwan-Li, leader of the Twin Serpents, the largest organized crime syndicate in eastern Asia.
The smells of night market were enough to turn even his iron gut to mushbody odor, eggs boiled in soy sauce, fresh fish and the redolence of oil from the nearby shipyard. Even worse, the fare offered in the busy open market sounded like something from a house of horrors menu: Grilled chicken feet, boiled snails, breaded salamander, poached pigeon eggs, and the specialty of the daycarp-head soup.
"What did you get me into, Chet?" he whispered, wondering if Chet Stryker, his cohort for his unfortunate op, was grinning at the other end of his transmitter. "Squid or even snails, okay, but a frog?" Chet had set up this meetand the frog signal. "Next time, you're going to be drinking asparagus juice, buddy." He hoped Chet's silence meant he still had his eyes on him. David hadn't seen his partner in the forty-five minutes he'd been walking around the marketa sign of Chet's skill, no doubt.
David looked at the brown and crispy frog and wondered if he was supposed to add condimentshe'd noticed a sort of ketchup and horseradish at the bar.
A few more seconds and he'd have to take a bite. It wasn't enough to just stand here and try to blend in with the crowd, not an easy task given that every man who brushed by him stood around chin height. Even with David's long dyed-black hair, silk Asian shirt and designer jeans, he knew he looked like a walking American billboard. Thankfully, foreigners flocked to the novelty of night market in this part of Kaohsiung in Taiwan.
Excerpted from Wiser Than Serpents by Susan May Warren Copyright © 2008 by Susan May Warren. Excerpted by permission.
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