|Publisher:||Speaking Volumes, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.72(d)|
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Golden Gate Park
The sky was cloudless, a pure, solid cobalt blue, except for a brassy haze ringing the sun.
Janna Drovana watched as birds with sickle-shaped wings bolted from a towering palm tree to avoid the stones being thrown by two young boys dressed in cutoff jeans and matching red T-shirts.
Janna was thirteen years old, but looked younger: thin-boned and small for her age, her shoulder-length hair so black it had hints of blue in it. Her face was heart-shaped, like her mother's had been. She tilted her head upward to the sun, closing her eyes, enjoying the warmth, remembering how cold and damp she had been last night.
"There she is!" a familiar, harsh voice shouted.
Janna jerked her head around and spotted her mother's cousin, Yuri Stoylar, less than fifty yards away, standing at the foot of the steps leading to the De Young Museum.
Janna leaped over a low-lying sphinxlike statue, threaded her way through a throng of tourists, darted into a road that was choked with cars and double-parked buses, then raced toward the Japanese Tea Gardens.
Yuri Stoylar's shouts of "Get her! Get her!" rang in her ears as she tried to pick his companions out of the crowd.
She narrowly missed running directly into one: a broad-shouldered, slab-faced man with a droopy mustache. She recognized him. He'd been to the flat, to drink with Cousin Yuri after her mother's death. She'd overheard someone saythat he was a weight lifter who once had been a member of the Russian Olympic team. She did not know his name, but she remembered how he had looked at her. Just like Yuri and his other friends had. Even before Mama died.
He held out his arms, about to encircle her.
Janna immediately dove to the ground, then rolled into the legs of a woman wearing a knee-length plaid skirt, who let out a startled yelp at the contact.
Janna quickly regained her feet and sprinted away, her head swiveling back and forth, catching a glimpse of the man with the droopy mustache using his massive arms to shove a group of Chinese students out of his way.
Janna scrambled past the long line of people waiting to pay for admittance to the Tea Gardens. She dropped down, skittering on her palms and toes, like a frightened cat, as she approached the kiosk.
There were some laughs and some indignant shouts, but she ignored them, getting back to her feet, weaving through the overhanging cherry trees and taking refuge behind a stand of timber bamboo.
Yuri Stoylar bulled his way into the gardens, the Mustache Man at his heels. There was a commotion and finally Stoylar fumbled his wallet from his pocket, threw a handful of bills at the woman in the kiosk, then began gesturing wildly with his hands, directing the other man.
They split up, Stoylar standing guard near the ten-foot bronze Buddha that he so closely resembled: bald head, bulging belly. He was dressed as usuala soiled black leather jacket and ragged jeans. The top of his head was sheened with sweat. The Mustache Man moved off, elbowing his way through the tourists and kimono-clad women serving Jasmine tea and fortune cookies.
Yesterday, Janna had managed to pick up enough of the abandoned, half-eaten cookies to make a breakfast.
She edged away from the bamboo, slipping into the center of a bevy of young girls, who were being chaperoned by a Catholic nun.
The girls were somewhat younger than Janna. Nine or ten, she estimated. She bent her knees and hunched her shoulders, hoping to go unnoticed.
The Catholic nun gave her a curious look and was about to say something when Janna felt the strong, painful grip of a hand on her shoulder.
"Come with me," the Mustache Man said in guttural Russian. "Your friends are looking for you."
Janna tried pulling away, but his fingers dug in deeper. She twisted her head, struggling to latch her teeth on to that hand, but she couldn't reach it.
"What's going on?" the nun demanded. She was fairskinned, her smooth forehead disappearing into the cowl of her starched white habit.
"He's hurting me," Janna cried. "He's hurting me."
The Mustache Man was waving with his free hand toward Yuri Stoylar.
"Let her go," the nun insisted.
The man gave her a hard look. "Go mind your own business!" he shouted in heavily accented English.
The nun hesitated for a moment.
"Help!" Janna yelled. "He made me touch him. Touch him down there. Look! His pants are unzipped!"
Janna considered the accusation a white lie. The Mustache Man had never tried to make her touch him, but Cousin Yuri had.
The man released his grip momentarily. Janna squirmed free, reaching for the protection of the nun's flowing robe.
"Don't let him take me," she pleaded.
The nun's pale face reddened. "Someone call the police," she ordered in a loud classroom voice.
Janna could see Cousin Yuri standing at the fringe of the gathering crowd. She looked directly into his piglike eyes, gave him a quick, triumphant smile, then darted over a narrow wooden bridge spanning a stone-laden creek, past the three-story orange-and-gold pagoda, and finally through the head-high turnstile exit at the rear of the gardens.
Janna ran nonstop for fifteen minutes, zigzagging up the incline to Stow Lake, easily passing older, dedicated joggers and flashily dressed roller-bladers, scattering squadrons of squatting seagulls and pigeons, not slowing her pace until she was beyond Rainbow Fall and the stables by the Polo Field, finally stopping at her favorite spot by tiny Speckles Lake, where people came to sail their model boats.
She paused in the shade of the antlerlike branches of a cypress tree, bent over at the hips, hands on her knees, sucking in great gulps of air. It had been close. Too close. She was going to have to find another hiding place. But where else could she go? Her mother had brought her to Golden Gate Park almost every day. She'd gotten to know most of the nooks and crannies of the thousand-acre park, which was located just five blocks from their flat. The flat they had shared for four long months with Cousin Yuri Stoylar. And his friends. Every few weeks one man would leave, then another one, or two, would move in. Cousin Yuri had told her that she would have to be "nice" to the men to pay for her keep. "Like your mother, before she took sick, Janna."
Janna straightened up and scanned the irregular-shaped little lake. Its stone-flagged border path was rimmed with towering eucalyptus, pine, and cypress trees.
She liked to watch the people who came to sail their elaborate model boats on the murky, olive-green pond waters. They were mostly older men, who brought their own folding chairs. They sat with their transmitters on their laps, the long, telescoping antennas resembling fishing rods, while they orchestrated the activities of the flotilla of boats, which ranged from models to snub-nosed tug boats, to fully rigged, long-masted schooners, to menacing-looking battleships.
Janna also enjoyed watching the hand-sized turtles bask in the sun. They would struggle clumsily to climb up on the back of a giant, half-submerged concrete turtle, then gently slide back into the lake.
The boats and the turtles weren't her main interests today. Her eyes were fixed on the woman who was sitting alone on the green wooden bench by the path leading to Fulton Street.
She was feeding the squirrels. The woman was older than her mother had been. And quite fat. Her face was chalk-white, thick with makeup. Her hair was the color of a ripe orange. Yesterday she'd worn a beautiful yellow sweater and matching skirt. Today she was wearing a tobacco-brown suede coat. Her plump legs were encased in dark brown pants. Brightly polished boots reached up to her knees. The boots reminded Janna of the type she'd seen rich people wear in the movies when they rode horses. She smiled at the thought of the fat woman on a horse.
The fat woman had a wicker basket stuffed with food. Yesterday she ate a lunch of sandwiches, cake, pie, and candy. There seemed to be too much food for one person in the basket. She threw pieces of the pastry to the birds, and then lobbed peanuts at a family of squirrels, who sat on their haunches, waving their paws, begging for the nuts.
Yesterday she'd left behind a sandwich, thick creamy egg and sweet pickle, Janna's favorite. Along with an apple and a banana. It had made a wonderful dinner. Janna wondered if the woman would leave her any food today.
The woman rummaged through her basket and took out a small black plastic computer. Janna had watched her play with it yesterday. She looked up at Janna and smiled.
Janna pivoted around, looking for Yuri Stoylar and the Mustache Man. When she turned back, the woman was still smiling.
"Did you enjoy the sandwich I left for you yesterday, young lady?" Her voice was soft, slightly husky. "I hope someone else didn't get to it first. You looked so hungry."
Janna edged closer, noticing the rings on the woman's fingers. Were they real diamonds? If they were real, she must be very rich. "I got the sandwich," she acknowledged.
The woman began clicking away at the mini-computer. "You speak English very well. Your accent. It's Russian. Let me guess. St. Petersburg?"
"Yes," Janna answered curtly. "How did you know?"
"Because I was born there! My name is Angela. Do you like to play games? I love playing checkers, solitaire, and blackjack." She tilted the small computer screen toward Janna. "I'm playing blackjack now." She giggled lightly. "And not doing very well. It's a good thing I'm not playing for money. Would you like to join me for lunch today?"
Janna jammed her hands into her jacket pockets. "Why do you have so much food?"
Angela dug a box of candy out of the basket. "I cook for my two nieces, who are just about your age. Their mother died, so every day I bring them food." Her eyes drifted toward the lake. A motorized replica of a Mississippi riverboat nearly collided with a graceful, blue-hulled sailing model. "I like to stop here. It's so peaceful. Do you live nearby?"
Janna nodded her head. Very nearby. Her sleeping bag and one change of clothing, all that she'd been able to take from the flat, were hidden across the road in a thicket of rhododendrons.
She had no other choice. She'd overheard Cousin Yuri on the phone, discussing his plans for her. He was going to sell her! Sell her, as if she were some kind of animal, a pet that belonged to him.
Janna sat down cautiously on the edge of the bench, ready to jump up at the first sign of Cousin Yuri or the Mustache Man.
The woman handed the small computer to her. "Here, see if you have any luck. Have you ever played blackjack?"
"No," Janna admitted. The game was unfamiliar to her. "But I like to play chess. My father taught me to play chess on a computer back home."
"Wonderful," Angela cheered, clapping her hands together. "Perhaps you can teach me. Come. Eat. Try the candy," the woman urged. "I made it myself."
Janna snatched one of the chocolate-covered bonbons, popped it into her mouth, and quickly took another one.
She'd been hiding in the park for the last four days, and had learned that one of the lessons of survival was to eat all you could, when you could.
The woman patted the bench. "Come. Don't be so frightened. Sit down with me. I have some chicken and pie. Blueberry pie." She smiled, her face fanning into hundreds of wrinkles. "Blueberry. Like the color of your eyes. Sit. Eat. I want to be your friend."