How could I decide on one favorite character? I suppose I could have chosen one I’ve written three stories about…or the one who’s been in two of my stories, with another one simmering in my backbrain…or one of the other three who’ve appeared twice (so far)…or the Olympic skater… But, on reflection, I decided the safest thing was to go with a very recent character, so I could be pretty sure I wasn't repeating an excerpt that I’ve posted before.
I tend to think of my characters in pairs, so I’ll tell you about Alex and Yev (Alexandra and Yevgeniya) from “Carved in Stone,” my story in Desire Behind Bars. Alex is the first-person narrator, but Yev was by far the most fun to write about. They’re both in prison. Alex is a tough stone cutter who designed a garden installation that turned out to conceal a drugrunner’s stash, and wouldn’t deny in court that she’d suspected something of the sort, or cooperate by giving the names of other customers who might or might not have dome something similar. Yev is the big, muscular former “enforcer” for a Chechen drug lord living in the US, and has reason to think she’s safer in jail than out, but suspects that Alex may have been hired as a “hit man” to knock her off even there. Sparks of animosity fly, but even hotter sparks are in the air when they’re both working outside on the grounds crew.
I tossed aside the file. “Now for your story. I showed you mine. You show me yours.” I lay back on the grass, propped up by my elbows.
She leaned against the riding rig of the mower. “Fair enough.” For a second she reached down. I thought she was going to shed her shirt as I had, but she looked slantwise up toward the window of CO Haynes’s office and changed her mind, instead rolling up her sleeves as far as they’d go. I could tell that beneath the shirt she wore a binder that couldn’t quite conceal the swell of full breasts. I had too little in that department to bother binding, but enough to make a sweaty undershirt interesting. The fact was not lost on Yev. And, possibly, CO Haynes.
“I too would not speak at my trial. I have family yet in Chechnya...if indeed they still live.” She was silent for a moment or two. “There was a time, long ago, when I imagined a different life. Just need a little while, I thought, to save up money. But to work as bodyguard to a Chechen drug lord is a road to nowhere but destruction, even in America. He enjoyed humiliating men by having a woman rough them up. For a few, who liked very much to have a woman rough them up, he used me as a reward—and then blackmailed them. If I tried to get out...” She shrugged. “Now he is dead, but I could tell more than is known, and there are men still free who would pay much to have me dead as well.”
I nodded. Yev’s level gaze acknowledged our mutual attraction without diminishing her suspicion one bit. I gave it a try anyway. “If somebody put out a contract to get rid of you in prison, wouldn’t a cute young femme be the natural choice? Plenty of them manage to get close to you. A blade between the ribs or a contrived accident wouldn’t take much muscle.”
“Pah! Those children. Them, I can read. If not, they do not get close. But you...either you tell the truth, or you are very, very good at what you do.”
“Why not both?” My wry grin coaxed one from her. I turned back to the mower. “Come on, let’s get this rust monster put back together.”
Crouching together, conscious of being watched from above, we worked quickly, not touching, not needing touch to feel each other’s heat.
“Yev?” One of the crew members peered around the corner of the garage. “Fifteen minutes until count!”
“Go then. Shoo, shoo.” She waved an arm. “You too!” Yev could probably get away with not being in her assigned room for the thrice-daily count by the guards, but I couldn’t. Her big hand gripped my ass hard before shoving me in the direction the others had gone. I let her get away with it. Anyone else would have had that wrist in a sling for at least a month.
At dinner we kept to our opposite sides of the dining hall, casting the usual enigmatic glances at each other. A shadow of a knowing smile drifted across Miss Natalya’s face.
The next day Yev and I mowed, while the others trimmed the hedges along the drive. I stopped and got off at the rock that had bent the blade. “No digging out this one. There’s a whole lot more of it down there, like an iceberg. Was it sticking up this much last year?”
“A little more each year I have been here.” She saw the question on my face. “Three years. Six more to go.”
“By then they might as well just make a rock garden here and stick some kind of plaque on this.”
“You could kindly offer to carve words into it. Fine lines about the greatness of prisons.”
“I could do a wreath made of coils of razor wire around the edges. And in the middle...hmmm... there’s a verse I inscribed on a marble mantelpiece, for a rich guy’s bedroom. Lines from an old poet, Andrew Marvell. They’ve been on my mind lately.” I paused for dramatic effect.
I basked in Yev’s impatience as I sat on the new-mowed grass. And I told:
“Let us roll all our strength and all/Our sweetness up into one ball,/
And tear our pleasures with rough strife/
Through the iron gates of life.”
The words hung between us. “Is that how you like your pleasures, McKenna?” Yev said at last. “With ‘rough strife’?”
Something about her expression told me to tread carefully. A hot, sweaty bout of rough strife with Yev had certainly been on my mind, but I remembered how her old boss had pimped her skills. And what about her new boss, if Haynes could be called that?
“It depends,” I said, glancing back toward his office window, but it was out of sight around a corner.
“It does.” Yev slumped to the grass beside me. “Sometimes...” Her voice was so low I could scarcely hear it. “Sometimes one does things to protect others.” She jerked her head back toward where I’d looked. “Yes, he found out, somehow, and wanted some of that for himself. Humiliation, punishment, the usual. But he has a wife and cannot afford visible injuries, so he asks for other things. And of course he provides his own...implements.”
“Pegging?” Even as I said the word I was trying to shake that image of Haynes out of my mind.
Her laugh was harsh and abrupt. “There is a better word for that in Russian! But yes.” She shrugged. “The hardest part is not leaving bruises, or more, on him. But he leaves others alone and does all he can get away with to please me, for the moment. No more need be said.”
She stood and climbed back up on the mower. “But what about you, McKenna? Alex, the girls call you when they speak of you, which is often. You did not give me much of an answer. It depends on what?”
“On being equally matched,” I said. “Strength for strength.”
Her wide grin was wolfish now, and genuine. “Perhaps I should have mentioned my silver medal in Olympic wrestling.”
“Thanks for the warning!” I looked her over. “I’d sure like to meet whoever won the gold!”
“Ah, Anneliese!” Yev rolled her eyes in remembered bliss. “We still correspond. Even here she sends me letters now and again. Who knows? Maybe some day you will have the pleasure of meeting her. She lives in Norway. Where mountains also rise out of the sea.” Her mower sputtered into life, and she drove away. By the time I caught up we were back at the garage and I had to bolt for the damned count.
[I’ll spare you the fierce sex scene during a thunderstorm, but I can’t resist letting Yev share her taste in poetry]
We lay there, nearly comatose, until I said, “We’ve missed count. How screwed are we?”
“Maybe a lot, maybe a little. So what?” She was quiet then for so long that I thought she was asleep, until she opened her eyes and grinned at me, more wolf than lion now. A supremely satisfied wolf. “You have not quite managed to kill me yet, although you came close! I have decided what you must carve on my tombstone, just in case. Yevgeny Yevtushenko, now there’s a poet!” The lines she recited in Russian meant nothing to me, though the resonance of her voice stirred both my mind and body. Then she translated, stumbling over a word or two:
“Sorrow happens. Hardship happens.
The hell with it, who never knew the price of happiness, will not be happy.”
“Carve it in Russian,” she said cheerfully. “There are better words for everything in Russian.”