A bleak wind whipped the loose strands of my hair across my cheeks as I stumbled out onto the stone balcony. A furious shout from behind spurred me on. Without thinking, I hiked up one side of my silver sequined ball gown and stepped onto the wrought iron chair. Bracing my hand against the rough stone exterior, I raised my left foot and placed it on the narrow ledge. My right foot caught in the long length of my dress as I lifted it. My body jerked forward as my nails clawed at the bricks for purchase.
The London street blurred as dark shadows crept along the edges of my vision. Even at this late hour, people and cars streamed below, an army of disinterested ants scurrying from one destination to another. I swallowed the bile in the back of my throat and fought the urge to faint, to give in to the darkness. Clinging to the sharp-edged wall, I gently shook my leg to dislodge the dress. The fabric fell away and I placed my high-heeled foot on the ledge.
Avoiding the urge to use my hand to brush back my hair, I pressed my open left palm against the bricks. I stretched out my other arm to rest my right palm on the head of a grotesque gargoyle. It was a dragon with bat wings and a long, protruding tongue.
The cold damp air turned to piercing icicles in my lungs as I inhaled a shaky breath. The rushing wind scattered the sounds of civilization like rose petals cast into a storm, giving the scene below a strange, otherworldly feel, as if I were staring at a muted television. A sickly gray mist hung low in the atmosphere, obscuring most of the stars. Only a weak stream of moonlight broke through to cast a faint, eerie glow over the dark, churning waters of the Thames nearby.
I should have chosen the Thames.
I’ve heard drowning was a painless, almost peaceful way to die.
It wouldn’t work.
He’d find me too quickly.
I knew just as the chaotic nightmare of my life would start to fade, as I embraced the quiet, underwater darkness, he would reach down and breach the world between the living and the dead to drag me back to his side, like a bedeviled
Hades tormented by the flight of Persephone.
Not even death would separate us.
He said that to me once.
He told me I’d never escape him.
Even in death I would be his and his alone.
I risked a glance down. My heart pounded in my chest. How long would it take? Would I have a chance to regret it?
What would my final thought be?
I already knew…
It would be of HIM.
Always of him.
Only of him.
My dress tangled around my ankles as the harsh wind caused my body to sway, as if Mother Nature were trying to save one of her maidens from a fate worse than death by making the choice for me. I tightened my grip on the gargoyle.
I didn’t dare turn at the sound of my name on his lips. The musky scent of his cologne swirled around me with the wind, chasing away the stale earthy odor of the river waters. It would figure he would enforce his dominance over even Mother Nature.
His voice took on the hard, authoritative edge I was so accustomed to. “Kitten, give me your hand.”
I slowly shook my head as I stared at the ground as if mesmerized. “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t do us. It’s too much.”
“Goddammit, Aurora. Give me your hand!”
Panicked, I risked a glance over my shoulder as my fingernails dug into the stone gargoyle. “Don’t come any closer!”
He was standing only a foot away, dressed in his tuxedo, the bow tie hanging loose around his open collar. “I shouldn’t have done that to you. I should have never taken you there. Is that what you want to hear? I admit it. I was wrong. Now baby, please, step back off the ledge.”
He was closer now. Warmth radiated off him, cutting through the chill which wracked my body. I wanted to give in. I wanted to bury my head in his neck as I sought refuge in the strength of his arms. I wanted to feel his lips move against my forehead as he promised to chase all the demons away.
From before we had even met, every moment, every thought, every deed had been a calculated game of manipulation and deceit.
An hysterical laugh bubbled up from deep inside my chest. “What’s the matter, Roman? Was this not part of your master plan? Am I breaking one of your precious rules?”
His wrath seethed through his clenched teeth. “You’re damn right you are, and I’ll show you just how displeased I am the moment I lay my hands on you.”
A shudder ran down my spine. My skin prickled with awareness from imagining I could already feel the heavy smoothness of his leather belt against my flesh.
The soles of his shoes made grating sounds against the stone balcony floor as he shifted ever closer. “I won’t let you go. Not ever. Jump and I’ll follow you down.”
The tears froze on my cheeks. My voice warbled as I asked, “Why me? Why did it have to be me?”
He answered without hesitation. “It was always going to be you, my love. No matter what, even if I had to become the devil himself, you were always fated to be mine.”
A weight settled in my chest, making it hard to breathe. “This isn’t love.”
“No. It’s something far greater, far more powerful.” He reached out and crushed the hem of my gown in his fist.
Startled, I turned and lost my footing. The soft bottoms of my high heels slipped off the ledge. My arms flailed as my hands grasped at the cold, unforgiving air. A scream tore from my mouth as a gruesome death seemed all but certain.
My body was both weightless and heavy. The ground taunted me from below.
As I slipped down into the waiting arms of the dark night, Roman lurched over the railing. His strong hand wrapped around my left wrist, wrenching me back from the clutches of near death. I dangled from his grasp, my life in his hands.
“I’ve got you.”
My eyes pleaded. “Please don’t let me go!”
His mouth lifted in a macabre hint of a knowing smile. “Never.”
As he spoke, the full moon broke free from the fog. It taunted me by settling behind Roman’s head, a twisted halo of unholy light.
A frigid sense of dread settled deep in my belly.
Somehow, someway, even this had all been part of his cruel game.
And once again, I had played straight into his hands.
“Don’t worry, kitten. I’ve got you… and I’ll never let you go.”
As my brain clawed its way back to consciousness, my body stiffened, a primal reaction to danger. I could feel it, sense it. I stilled. I just knew… something was wrong.
I tried to open my eyes, but groaned when the bright sunlight sent a stab of pain straight to my temples. I threw my elbow over my eyes as I focused on taking a deep breath to quell the nausea which rose against the back of my throat.
My lungs tried to expand, but a clinging pressure restricted them. I flattened my hand on the center of my chest. Intricate beading and what felt like stiffened lace scratched my palm.
What the hell?
The dress I’d had on earlier was fashioned of soft silk.
I rose on my elbows and stared down the length of my body.
Is that blood?
I tried to swing my legs over the side of the bed, but my feet got caught in the voluminous skirts of the dress I now
wore. I tumbled over the edge of the mattress, landing painfully on my hands and knees. Flecks of crimson marred the pale back of my right hand. Scrambling to my feet, I ignored the twinge of pain in my knee as I hobbled across Roman’s bedroom to the dressing room. I swung the door open and crossed to the floor-length mirror at the other end.
My mouth dropped open in shocked horror.
I raised my fingertips to the dress bodice as if I needed to feel it to know this was real. My gaze traveled over my body, taking in each unfamiliar detail of the dress I wore. The top was a tightly laced silk corset with cream lace and crystal beads in an elaborate floral pattern. I swiveled my hips to stare at the back in the mirror. There were reams of gathered silk where a large bustle would go, ending in a small train.
It was a beautiful Victorian-looking wedding gown.
The problem was, it wasn’t my dress. This one was the same color as the one I last remembered wearing, but it was different. I had never seen it before in my life.
It was also covered in blood splatter along the right side.
As I tried to come to grips with my mounting terror, I stared at my haunted reflection. My cheeks looked pale and sunken in. My eyes were rimmed with red, as if I had been crying. Red lipstick was smeared across my lips, which mirrored, in a macabre way, the mascara stains under my eyes.
My breath rising in panic, I shoved my fingers into my tangled hair. I hissed as a sharp sting had me wrenching my hand back. There was a thin cut down the center of my right palm, and a small droplet of blood clung to the skin.
Furrowing my brow, I gingerly dug into my wild nest of hair and yanked free the remnants of what had probably been a floral head wreath. The delicate white orange blossom petals were crushed and bruised. A sharp wire poked out from behind the ivory ribbon which had been wrapped around the head wreath. Its end was stained with my blood.
With a cry, I hurled the crushed flower wreath across the room.
I grabbed at the bodice, trying to wrench it off me. It was too tightly secured. Reaching behind my back, I desperately searched for a clasp, a button, a corset string, anything to loosen the dress. After several minutes of trying, I sank to my knees in front of the mirror. My chest was covered in scratches from where I’d tried to claw the bodice off.
Why couldn’t I remember putting on this dress?
Why couldn’t I remember anything?
And whose blood was this?
I could already tell it wasn’t mine. I had no visible injuries.
There wasn’t a lot of blood. It was just hundreds of tiny drops, as if someone had flicked a paintbrush full of red paint at me. Except it wasn’t paint. I knew the smell of blood. I had smelled the coppery harbinger of death right before finding my mother and stepfather dead. The memory of that scent never left you.
The only sound in the dressing room was my labored and erratic breathing.
There was, of course, one question I hadn’t asked yet… Where was Roman?
I wrapped my arms around my waist and rocked back and forth.
Why couldn’t I remember?
What the hell had happened to me?
What had I done?
I placed my hands over my face. Think. I had to think. I had no complete memory of the last twenty-four hours, just flashes of color and unknown faces. Fear. I remembered feeling afraid and confused. Then nothing. As if someone had wiped my mind blank. What if it wasn’t that I couldn’t remember but that my mind didn’t want me to remember? I’d read about the mind protecting itself from traumatic memories by refusing to recall them.
What had I done?
I stared at the wrinkled and bloodied wedding dress. It seemed oddly familiar, and yet I couldn’t imagine why. I’d think I would remember willingly wearing a freaking Victorian wedding gown.
Nothing was going to come to me kneeling on the floor. I needed to get out of this awful dress and wash the blood off.
Maybe then it would all come back to me. I ran my hands over my upper arms as a shiver wracked my body. That was, if I wanted to remember.
I wrapped my left hand around a drawer handle and used it to pull myself upright. I then searched the other drawers for a pair of scissors. My only option was to somehow cut my way out of the dress. I found a pair of large, silver, lethal-looking shears.
Just as I was about to thrust the opened blades between my breasts to cut the silk corset, I heard a sound behind me.
I turned, gripping the shears like a weapon and raising them high.
Roman stood in the doorway. His chest was bare. He was holding what looked like a wadded up white dress shirt soaked in blood over his shoulder.
I gasped. “What happened?”
His eyes narrowed. “You shot me. And on our wedding day, no less.”
Elizabeth’s emerald gaze darted over my shoulder to the exit.
My body tensed, ready to pounce.
Her foot slid to the right, as she slowly turned her body in the door’s direction.
“I wouldn’t if I were you,” I warned.
The sudden bark of my voice echoed off the bare brick walls and visibly startled her.
She leaned forward slightly… then my little bird took flight.
Running in an arc, she bolted for the door.
I was too quick for her.
Lunging, I stretched out my arm and caught her around the waist, pulling her struggling body against my chest. Her delicate frame no match for my strength. I could feel each thin bone and soft curve of her body as I pressed it to mine.
So easily breakable.
Elizabeth screeched and clawed at my forearm. “Let me go! Let me go!” Wrapping another arm securely across her shoulders, I tightened my grasp on her. The pressure against her ribcage stifled her breath and ceased her struggles.
Taking the soft lobe of her ear between my teeth, I bit down. “Never,” I growled.
My blood was up. I wanted this fight with her. Needed it.
Releasing my hold, Elizabeth stumbled forward before swinging to face me.
Pushing her damp curls away from her face, she just stared at me with those wild, beautiful eyes of hers. A single tear coursed down her flushed cheek.
I would never get my fill of this woman… of this.
I wanted to swallow her screams and taste her tears. The wicked beast inside of me craved to devour every innocent glimmer of light within her soul till I had filled it with the same shadows as my own. I knew there was darkness inside of her. It called out to me. There was nothing in my life so enthralling or so challenging as drawing it out. Forcing it to the surface to come play my twisted, depraved games.
Backing up a step, keeping her palms defensively before her, she breathed, “It was a mistake to return.” Reaching for my belt, I slowly slipped the long leather strap through the sterling silver buckle as I took a threatening step toward her. “Yes, it was.”
What was the point in denying it?
She had angered and betrayed me.
As I told Andrew, life had consequences.
Especially when you dared to fight me over something I wanted to possess. And I would possess Elizabeth. In time, I would burn away all her defiance until she finally accepted that her fate lay with me… and only me.
Scrambling backward, her chest rose and fell with each quickened breath. I could see the sharp outline of her nipples through her still-damp t-shirt. Closing my eyes for a moment, I imagined her in the shower. Soft, warm water caressing her skin as foamy, iridescent bubbles clung to each curve. My cock swelled and pressed painfully against the zipper of my jeans.
“Richard, I love you, but we have to end this. It’s too toxic. It’s become too twisted,” she pleaded. I nodded as I pulled my belt free. Running my hand down the long, thick length of leather before folding it in half in my right fist. “The only way you escape me, Elizabeth, is in death. You were mine from the first moment I laid eyes on you. Nothing has or ever will change that.”
I took another step toward her. My intent clear.
With a cry of alarm, Elizabeth scanned the wall before grabbing at one of my displayed swords. She chose a rather ominous Russian Cossack saber. Pulling it free of its hardened black leather and gold sheath, she exposed the long, flat, razor-sharpened blade.
Holding the hilt with both of her small hands, she extended the heavy blade in front of her, pointing it at my mid-section.
“Don’t come any closer,” she warned. Her voice sounded high and thin with a slight warble.
She was afraid.
She should be.
Keeping her gaze locked with mine, I took two deliberate steps in her direction. Wrapping my left hand around the blade, I ignored the harsh sting of pain as its sharp edge sliced into my fingers. Elizabeth gasped, her cherry lips opening in shock as I placed the point of the blade over my heart.
She tried to back away, but the wall prevented her. Keeping my grasp on the blade, I lifted it higher till the point leveled over my heart. Refusing to take my gaze off her, I let the tip sink into my flesh.
“Oh God,” she whimpered.
Releasing the blade, I stood there. Watching as small drops of my own crimson blood trickled down the blade’s bright silver edge.
“Do it, Elizabeth. Thrust the blade into my heart.”
Tears streamed down her cheeks.
“Richard, please… I can’t… don’t make m-”
“Do it,” I yelled, my harsh intake of breath driving the point in a little deeper. Hissing through my clenched teeth at the pain, I reached past the blade and placed my left hand over her trembling grasp. “Drive it deep into my heart because that’s what you will do if you leave me.”
This might take my sadistic manipulation to new levels, but I didn’t give a damn. I would not go back to my colorless, jaded existence. It was her and her love or nothing for me.
We stopped in front of an old iron gate which secured a small, walled-in private garden.
Looking around, I spied half a brick which was probably used to prop open the back door of a business across the way. Taking it in hand, it only took two strikes of the rock, to dislodge the small, ineffective padlock.
“Richard! This is breaking and entering!” exclaimed Elizabeth.
“I don’t give a f*ck.” Growling my answer, I shoved her against the brick wall just inside the garden.
The stone cut into my palms as I caged her in. Before she could say another word, my mouth descended. Finally claiming her for my own.
Leaning my hips in, I pressed my c*ck against her stomach as my tongue pushed between her teeth. She tasted of honey and champagne.
I was bruising her lips. I knew soon I would taste blood as the pressure of my mouth cut against the sharp edge of her teeth but I didn’t care.
I wanted her to feel pain from my kiss.
Wanted her to feel everything, including the threat of my c*ck.
Her small hands dug into the lapels of my jacket. Whether it was to draw me closer or push me away, didn’t matter. I wasn’t going anywhere.
Seizing her wrists, I pulled them high over her head and secured them with only the grip of my left hand. She was so small and delicate, like a little bird.
One I would soon cage so only I could hear the beautiful song of her moans and pleas.
Turning her head to the side, her breath came in ragged gasps. “Richard, wait!”
I claimed her mouth once more.
F*ck. I would never get enough of this woman.
It had become essential to my sanity that I possess her, everything about her – mind, body and soul – from the first moment I saw her in the park two weeks ago.
She had ruined my careful plans by almost getting hit by that cab today but no matter. The time for making plans was over. From this point forward, there was nothing but action… and her delicious response.
Using her trapped position, pinned against the wall, I kicked her feet wider while swallowing her cry of alarm.
Wrenching her dress up over her *ss, I once more pressed my hips into her pliant body, knowing the stone wall would scrape and bruise her soft flesh. The thought of one day soon putting a mark on that same gorgeous *ss with my belt or hand sent another rush of blood to my c*ck till it swelled painfully tight and hard.
I needed to be inside her, but that would have to wait.
Placing the heel of my palm between her legs, I pressed hard.
“Do you like that?” I breathed against her open mouth. “You like the feel of my hand on your p*ssy?”
I forced one finger inside her wet heat. Christ, she was tight.
Elizabeth cried out.
Pulling my hand free, I reached inside my jacket pocket and pulled out her panties. Releasing her wrists, I placed them in her palm.
Elizabeth stared at me with desire clouding eyes.
“Put these in your mouth.”
“You heard me. I want you to shove your own panties into your mouth.”
With large, trusting eyes, she carefully raised her hand to her mouth and started to push the black lace fabric between her lips.
It wasn’t that I wouldn’t have enjoyed forcing her mouth open and pushing them deep inside her throat till she choked and pleaded with me with her eyes but this was how the game was played. She needed to be an active player in her own humiliation. Her own inevitable debauchery. Otherwise, it wasn’t really a game. It was just me using brute force. No, it was much more satisfying and challenging when you made them choose to be debased. Her mouth now gaped obscenely, stuffed with her own arousal slick panties.
Returning my hand to her p*ssy, I shoved one thick finger in deep.
Elizabeth’s muffled cry burst free as she lurched up onto her toes to try to avoid the pleasure and pain of my sudden intrusion.
It was about to get far worse for her.
I put a second finger at her entrance and thrust in deep.
Her head began to swing from side to side.
My mouth slid along the column of her neck, tasting her rapid pulse. I moved to lick the small hollow where her neck met her collar bone just as I forced a third finger inside her tight, little body. My tongue lapped and sucked each delicious vibration from her scream.
With tears in her eyes, she started to plead with me, forgetting that the panties in her mouth distorted everything she tried to say. When she reached to remove them, I grabbed her wrist and once more pulled her arms up over her head.
“If you move your arms again, I’m going to bend you over that bench there and thrash you with my belt, do you understand?”
For the first time, I glanced around. In addition to the enormous tub there was a glass shower and lots of white and gold marble. Whatever hotel this was, it was swanky. That should definitely raise alarm bells since there was no way in hell my father was paying to put me up in this kind of luxury. Locking that thought in the for later box, I sunk lower in the tub till the bubbles tickled my chin. Reaching for a washcloth, I added even more bath soap and scrubbed every inch of my skin till it glowed.
I closed my eyes and leaned my head back. I was finally feeling human again.
Unbidden, thoughts of Luka crept into my consciousness.
The sight of him without his shirt on. Holy hell the man was big. Like BIG. Like muscles on top of muscles. His chest was covered in super scary-looking tattoos which only seemed to emphasize his toned abs. And then there was the feel of his c@ck against my foot and his hands on my body.
My palm slid along the top of my thigh. I pretended it was Luka again. Closing my eyes tight, I slipped my hand between my thighs. My fingertip slid between the folds of my p@ssy to find my cl!t. Again, I thought of Luka and the er@tic, terrifying thrill I’d felt the moment he’d reached for his belt. Was he serious? Was he the type of man who would actually whip off his belt and punish a girl for being bad? I bit my lip as I pressed my fingertip to my clit. I bet he was. I bet he was the type to growl at you to get on your knees and crawl to him as he pulled out his c@ck.
I circled the tip of my finger around the tiny bud of nerves, alternating between soft and light pressure. He practically screamed the dirty sex type. He probably liked to spank his women as he fucked them.
I barely stifled a groan as my back arched.
“Don’t stop,” growled Luka.
My eyes flew open. “Oh my God! What are you doing in here?”
Water splashed over the edge of the tub as I scrambled to cover myself. He placed the plate of cake he had been holding on the bathroom counter and stalked toward me. His hooded brow was low as his gray wolf eyes pierced me. “I said, don’t stop.”
I hunched lower in the water. Spitting out the taste of soap bubbles as I searched the bottom of the tub for the washcloth to cover my breasts. “I locked the door!”
He reached for his belt buckle. “And I unlocked it. I gave you an order.”
My cheeks burned hot. How long had he been watching me? Did he know what I had been doing under the cover of the sudsy water? Of course he knew, I chastised myself.
He whipped his belt free from his jeans and kicked off his shoes. “I’m not going to tell you again, princess. Keep touching yourself.” I gathered the fading bubbles closer to cover my chest. “Get out!”
With his jeans half-undone, he sat on the edge of the tub. He reached over and grabbed my face, holding me just beneath my jaw. “Tell me you weren’t just thinking about me as you played with that pretty p@ssy of yours” he snarled. “Tell me you weren’t remembering the feel of my hands on your body.”
I whimpered but couldn’t respond.
He caressed my neck then moved his hand further down. He cupped my right bre@st and squeezed. I cried out.
“Do it now,” he commanded.
My hand trembled as I moved it between my legs.
“That’s it, baby. Do as I tell you.”
My inner thighs clenched, locking around my wrist. This was so wrong and yet so f@cking hot. I rubbed my cl!t, harder this time. He massaged my bre@st before pinching my nipple. The shock of pain sent a lightning bolt of awareness down my spine. My hips started to move. The bathwater undulated in waves, splashing onto the floor.
“Push a finger inside. I want you to get that p@ssy ready for me.”
My mouth opened on a groan as I pushed a finger inside of myself. Then a second one.
This was going too far. I needed to stop this. Luka thought I was someone I wasn’t.
He moved his hand from my bre@st to between my legs. Pushing my hand aside, he replaced it with his own. His fingers were much larger and thicker than mine as they entered me. My hips shot up. “Oh God!”
Using his free hand, he placed two fingers against my lower lip. He forced my mouth open, then pushed his fingers inside. “Suck my fingers. Show me how you’ll suck my c@ck.”
I had no idea what I was doing. I’d never even come close to sucking a man’s c@ck in my entire sheltered life.
Luka bared his teeth before pushing a third finger inside my mouth, pushing down on my tongue. “Suck it. Hard.” His fingers thrust in and out of my p@ssy as I swirled my tongue around his fingers, wetting them, drawing them deeper into my mouth. As he pushed hard on his fingers between my thighs, he pushed deeper into my mouth, gagging me. Still I sucked as my hips started to buck.
“Good girl. Come for me.”
My hands grasped the edge of the tub as my torso shot up the moment wave after wave of pleasure hit my body. I crashed back down into the water as I bent my knees and grabbed his wrist, holding his hand in place as my pussy clenched down on his fingers. “Yes! Yes! F@ck!
With what could only be described as a primal roar, Luka pulled his fingers free and lifted me out of the water. A cascade of soapy water flowed over the edge as he carried me to the shower.
He had looked out of place, that was all I remembered.
I’d passed him on my way to the photography darkroom. On a college campus filled with students wearing shorts and hoodies in the middle of winter, the Japanese man in a long black leather trench coat calmly sitting on a park bench had stood out. He’d had on a pair of reflective sunglasses covering the upper part of his long, pale face and slicked-back, coal-black hair. It had been the leather gloves that had seemed particularly odd to me.
I couldn’t put my finger on why. They just did.
As I passed him, I had the distinct suspicion he was watching me to the exclusion of all the other students scurrying past, which was crazy. Everyone on campus knew me as Katie Antonova. I’d used my mother’s maiden name on my application. There was no reason why anyone would figure out I was the daughter of the notorious Russian crime boss Egor Novikoff, or the sister of my even more infamous brothers,
Lenin and Leonid. I had buried that life in my past and that was where it was going to stay.
Shaking off the odd feeling, I ducked under a low tree branch and headed toward the two-story brick building that housed the art and culture classes on my campus. Stopping at the bulletin board to see if the test scores for my History of Photography Through Art class were posted, I then headed down the linoleum-covered staircase to the basement. While the upper floors housed dance and art studios, the basement was where they kept the pottery wheels, glazing kilns and photography darkrooms.
This late in the day, I would have the place to myself. I clicked the lights on, squinting when the garish fluorescent lights flicked on one by one, until the entire basement was illuminated. I placed my shortylove blue camo crossbody bag on the table and pulled out my favorite manual Pentax K1000 SLR camera and my hot-pink binder of film negatives, leaving my other favorite digital camera tucked inside my bag.
Tonight I was working with black-and-white film, so I was pretty excited to experiment with different exposure times to get just the right effect. After entering the darkroom, I turned on the overhead light and fan, then put on a pair of safety goggles and gloves as I got ready to mix my chemicals. Setting out my three trays, I prepared the developer, stop bath and fixer. I then grabbed my pink binder and selected a row of negative film. Placing it on the lightbox, I tossed off my goggles and gloves and grabbed a loupe. I leaned down to examine each photo in detail.
Using a red grease pencil, I marked which photos I wanted to make into black-and-white prints. I placed the strip into the negative carrier and isolated one of the photos before raising and lowering the enlarger head to get the projected image to just the right size on the paper. I then used the focusing wheel to sharpen the image. After setting the aperture and my filter, I grabbed the timer. My plan for my test print was to divide the photo into three sections and expose each section by an additional five seconds.
Leaning over, I flicked off the white light and turned on the muted red one. I set my timer and began my test strip. After the allotted time, I used the rubber-tipped tongs to remove the paper from the developer and place it in the stop bath, then the fixer. As I turned to clip the wet paper to the clothesline we had stretched across the darkroom, I heard a sound outside the darkroom door.
I paused to listen.
No out of the ordinary sounds.
A nervous chill ran up my spine.
Still, I tried to concentrate on my test strip. Each section was darker than the last. I decided the ten second exposure was definitely going to be the best for this particular project. I turned to grab a fresh piece of photo paper when I heard it again. It almost sounded as if someone was opening and closing each of the darkroom doors. There were ten darkrooms lined up along the right wall of the basement.
Door number five. Click
Door number six. Click.
Door number seven. Click.
Whoever it was, they were getting closer.
I was in the last one, door number ten.
Feeling silly for doing so, I reached over and turned the lock on the doorknob.
It was probably just a security guard checking to see if students were still in the building and nothing more. Once again, I shook off the strange feeling and focused back on my project. This was due in class tomorrow, so I didn’t have time to be messing around or giving in to nerves. I made a slight adjustment to the enlarger head and set my timer.
That was when the doorknob turned.
The air seized in my lungs as I pivoted my head to stare at it.
I prayed it was my imagination.
Unable to breathe, I waited.
It turned again.
The movement was slight and slow.
If it were just a security guard checking the doors, they would have rattled it more decisively. No, this was the action of someone who didn’t want the person inside to know they were trying to open the door.
There was a long pause.
Then a soft, metallic scrape.
I hadn’t spent my early childhood surrounded by some of the most devious criminal masterminds on the East Coast without learning a thing or two. When I was as young as six, I’d had cousins teaching me how to pick a lock. I knew the sound like I knew my own heartbeat.
Knowing it was pointless, I scanned the small darkroom. There was no other exit. The room was basically a closet with a waist-high counter around its perimeter and a narrow aisle down the center.
I was trapped.
My fingers gripped the edge of the counter as I fixated on the doorknob.
I jumped a foot when my ten-second timer went off.
I slammed my palm down on the timer, shutting it off.
The scraping at the door stopped.
Using the counter because I didn’t trust my quivering legs, I carefully stepped toward the door. Holding my breath, I leaned over and placed my ear against it and listened. There was the sound of fabric rustling.
Then another soft metallic scrape.
I covered my mouth to suppress a scream and backed away from the door.
Please God, let me be overreacting.
Let this be a phantom of my past tainting my new reality.
Just because I had been raised to see demons in the shadows, didn’t make it so.
What was that saying? The sound of horse’s hooves didn’t mean zebras.
Please God, don’t let this be a fucking zebra.
The moment I heard the decisive click my body quaked.
Whoever it was, they had unlocked the door.
Once again, the doorknob slowly turned.
The door opened.
No light poured in.
The person must have turned off the basement fluorescent lights. Another really bad sign. There was just the dark outline of a tall, slender person, but I knew immediately who it was.
It was the man from the park bench. The one wearing the gloves and leather trench coat.
Trying to throw the intruder off, I called out in French. “Qu’est-ce que vous voulez?”
Maybe I would get lucky, and the person wouldn’t expect a supposed Russian mafia princess to speak French.
The man chuckled. “I know it is you, Katia.”
Katia. Only people who knew the Novikoffs knew my true name was Katia not Katie.
I backed up as far as the counter would allow. “What do you want?”
His voice was smooth and calm as if each word was cautiously spoken. “Why don’t we speak outside?”
I shook my head. “I have nothing to do with my family’s business and I don’t know who you are.”
He bowed his head slightly. “How remiss of me. My name is Kiyoshi Tanaka. I am… a business associate of your family.”
I let out a shaky breath. “Well, as I said, I have nothing to do with my family or their business so you can have nothing to say that would interest me. So get the fuck out of my darkroom.”
He took a step inside the small space. “There is no reason why we cannot be civil to one another. Your family has something I want. You are going to help me get it. I promise, if you cooperate, no harm will come to you.”
I didn’t believe him for a second.
I inched my hand toward the tray of chemical developer. “My bodyguard will be back at any moment. He will break you in half if he finds you here.”
The man shook his head. “Tsk tsk tsk. You are a liar, my dear Katia. We both know your family does not care enough about your well-being to guard you. That is their mistake, and my good fortune.”
The truth of his words stung.
Still, I had to try and talk my way out of this. It was my only defense. “If that is true then I can have no value to you.” Kiyoshi shrugged. “Sometimes the greatest treasures are the ones we miss only when they are gone.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“I do not wish to make this painful for you… but I will if I have to.”
“I’ll scream. The security guard will hear me.”
Kiyoshi seemed unfazed by my threat. “The security guard is unfortunately no longer in a position to assist you.”
Which meant he had either hurt the poor guard or outright killed him; either way, this had gone from bad to worse.
He took another step closer.
I was out of options.
In one fluid movement, I slipped my fingers under the tray of chemical developer and flipped it over, sending the chemical cascading down the front of Kiyoshi. He screamed as the chemical hit his eyes and mouth. The developer was heavily diluted and more dangerous to inhale than when exposed to the skin, but it would cause a slight chemical burn if got in his eyes. Hopefully it would be enough to slow him down.
Shoving him aside, I raced out of the darkroom. Snatching my bag as I passed the table, I dove up the stairs. I had a lead of only a few strides before I heard Kiyoshi in pursuit.
I burst through the outer door. As I inhaled a deep breath of frigid air, getting ready to scream, a hard weight slammed into my back. I was forced to the ground off to the side by the bushes. A hand wrenched me to my feet by my hair. I clawed and scratched but didn’t hit skin because of his leather gloves and coat.
A sweet-smelling cloth was placed over my nose and mouth.
As my eyelids drooped and my knees buckled, I gave up my fight and scrambled to reach into my crossbody bag. Knowing my attacker’s vision would still be compromised, I grabbed my camera and lifted it over my shoulder and took as many photos as I could. I then tossed the camera into the bushes before everything went black.
If the bastard was going to kill me, at least my final justice would be one of my photos damning him to hell for it.