Worthington University, Virginia
If I had known I was going to be kidnapped….
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.