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 cross-body 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 to 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 it 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 cross-body 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.
Krasnoyarsk Prison Camp, Siberia
Thin-soled boots stomped into the muddy ground as the shouts and calls from the prisoners escalated. A sea of gray jumpsuits and shaved heads stretched around the bare exercise yard. Some clanked the tin mugs used for their daily allotment of weak soup and bread against the metal fence as they called out for the fight to begin.
I took it all in calmly through the smudged and barred window of my cell as I sipped my lukewarm tea. The rock walls were covered in a slimy layer of ice and grime that trickled down over my straw mattress. An emaciated rat scrambled from a hole, desperate for food. I tossed him the last piece of crust from my bread before rising. Shrugging out of the top of my jumpsuit, baring my chest, I wrapped the sleeves around my waist and made my way out to the yard.
A cacophony of screams and boot stomping greeted my entrance.
I pumped my fists and jogged in place, warming up my body as I surveyed the crowd, looking for my quarry. In a corner, I zeroed in on my target who was surrounded by prisoners bearing Nazi insignia. At six five and one hundred and fifty kilos I was an impressive size, but my opponent was bigger. Although a few inches shorter, his frame was bulkier with a significant amount of fat.
It would be an even fight.
I was still going to kill him.
Pieces of shit racists got on my nerves. Plus there was very little entertainment in a Siberian prison camp in the middle of winter.
A nearby prisoner placed two fingers in his mouth and a high-pitched whistle pierced the shouts of the crowd.
I slammed a fist into my palm and stalked forward. These were my favorite kinds of fights. Bare-knuckle, no-holds-barred. Winner was the man left breathing.
The man approached and opened his mouth wide to release what I assumed was supposed to be an intimidating roar. His rotted teeth and tobacco-blackened tongue were repugnant. Leaning back, I kicked his jaw shut. The man’s head snapped back as he toppled to the ground. He rolled onto his side and spit out a mouthful of blood and a few teeth. The crowd swelled forward but was held back by several prisoners with their arms outstretched.
First rule of a prison fight. No interfering.
The man hobbled to his feet and raised his fists. “I’m going to kill you for that, Siderov.”
“You can try, Olga,” I said, using the female version of his name, Oleg.
The man cried out and charged. He swung his right arm wide, then the left. As he stretched his arm back for another swing, I kicked him square in the balls.
The man fell to his knees, grabbing his groin.
Second rule of prison fighting. Spare your knuckles.
I kicked him again in the jaw. This time I heard the bone crack as the lower part of his face hung slack.
He fell face-first into the mud.
Two of his compatriots surged forward. A few of the prisoners tried to hold them back, but I gave them a nod. The two men approached me.
Now I was finally going to have some real fun.
Stretching out my arms, I motioned with my fingers. “Bring it.”
The men attacked.
I pounded the first in the left eye socket and then turned to send the second man flying backward with an uppercut to the jaw. The first approached again. As he swung high, I bent low and nailed him in the kidneys before slamming my open palm just under his ribcage, collapsing his lung. The man’s eyes bulged as he staggered and fell into the waiting arms of the crowd.
The second man had a swastika tattooed on the front of his neck. I saw it as the perfect target. I grabbed him by the shoulder and held him in place as I ruthlessly pounded him in the throat. The man clutched and clawed at my arms as he struggled to breathe. He coughed and a fine mist of blood hit me in the face. Finally, I released him. He clutched at his throat as he fell to his knees.
The other prisoners surged forward. Several of them raised my arms in victory just as the guards’ whistles blew and several shots were fired into the air, breaking up the fight.
I accepted the grimy towel offered and wiped the blood off my face before untying the sleeves of my prison-issued jumpsuit. I was pushing my second arm into a sleeve when one of the guards approached.
The guard motioned over his shoulder with his thumb. “Luka, you have a visitor.”
I nodded as I buttoned the jumpsuit closed. “Where?”
“Boss says you can use his office.”
I nodded again as I followed the guard out of the exercise yard. Prison was no different than regular society, just more violent. Just as in the real world, money bought privileges and obscene amounts of money, as I had, bought access to the prison chief’s personal office.
Right before entering the office, I used the guard’s sleeve to wipe the rest of the blood off my face. He sneered but did nothing. I opened the door.
Sitting in the high-backed leather chair of the prison chief was Egor Novikoff.
“Out of my chair,” I ordered as I rounded the desk.
The two bodyguards he had brought with him stepped forward. The old man waved them off and dutifully switched to one of the more uncomfortable wooden chairs across from the desk.
I sat in the desk chair and reached across the desk to flip open the polished cigar box that rested on the corner. Selecting one, I bit off the end and reached into my pocket for my solid silver lighter. Holding the flame just below the tobacco so as not to burn it, I slowly lit the cigar, uncaring of the impatient looks Egor was sending me. When the cigar end glowed a bright orange, I leaned back in the leather chair and placed my muddy boots on the desk.
“To what do I owe the pleasure, Egor?”
“I need your help.”
I shrugged. “Not interested.”
“I’ll pay. Big.”
I took a long drag off my cigar. “Doubt you’ll pay more than what this oligarch is paying me to watch over his son while he enjoys our mother country’s hospitality.”
One of the perks of being a mafia mercenary was I owed loyalty only to myself. Each of the syndicates had used my services at one point or another, but I didn’t come cheap. A simple assignment would cost millions of American dollars, and nothing was beyond my skill set: assassinations, theft, arms deals. Hell, I’d even helped train a small military force for one bratva.
Currently, I was acting as a bodyguard for some weak pansy son of an oil oligarch who’d pissed off a Russian general by sleeping with his wife. The boy had been sent to Krasnoyarsk Prison Camp. It had taken me months to track him down since the Russians weren’t exactly known for their spotless record keeping. Especially when a certain general wanted someone to disappear in the system. Now his father was using his influence and several hefty bribes to get his son out. In fact, the boy was due to leave here tonight. Technically, that made me free to take Egor up on his offer. Trouble was, I didn’t like the guy, never had.
I shook my head as I tapped the ash end of my cigar onto a pile of official papers. “Get those useless sons of yours to help you.” I smiled. “Oh, that’s right. They got themselves shot.”
A friend of mine, Mikhail Volkov, had taken them out last year for daring to kidnap the little sister of the powerful Gregor Ivanov.
I shrugged again. “Well, play a stupid game, win a stupid prize, no?”
Egor’s shoulders hunched as he gripped the head of his cane more tightly. The man was broken. The only things keeping him alive among the syndicate families were his money and his connections, but they wouldn’t take you far in the Russian world. Money only counted for so much if it wasn’t backed by brute force and power.
Egor leaned forward, sliding a photograph across the top of the desk. “It’s my daughter, Katia. She’s missing.”
I picked up the photo. The woman was beautiful. Her gaze seemed to pierce the camera lens. Her eyes were definitely her best feature, a stunning bright crystal blue with flecks of dark cobalt blue. They were complemented by her fair skin and glossy mink-brown hair. I frowned. “What do you mean missing?”
Egor shook his head and waved his hand in the air with frustration. “She takes after her bitch of a mother. Insisted on going off on her own to some college in Virginia. I think she found out I was planning on bringing her to Russia to marry and took off.”
Katia must be the daughter from Egor’s disastrous second marriage. The sons were from the first. His first wife was a sallow, beaten-down woman who died giving birth to the twins. The second had more fire in her belly, if memory served. She ran away from Egor when the daughter was still a child. It was an embarrassment for Egor as the head of the powerful Novikoff family and one of the first knocks that would lead to their current straits. Without his sons as heirs, the Novikoff legacy was in danger. It left Egor and his interests vulnerable. He must be trying to marry off his errant daughter to shore up his power.
I pocketed the photo. “So who’s the lucky groom?”
I grimaced. Pavel Petrov was seventy if he was a day. His sons were a nuisance to friends of mine, Vaska Lukovich and Dimitri Kosgov and their arms operations in Chicago. No wonder the chit ran away. I took out the photo and looked at it a second time. “Five million US dollars. First half wired into my usual account.”
“Five million!” scoffed Egor.
The miserly bastard was worth a hundred times that amount and stood to gain tens of millions from the marriage of his family into the Petrov syndicate. I snuffed out my cigar on the wooden surface of the desk and rose. “Good luck finding her.”
My hand rested on the doorknob to leave.
Egor rose as well, leaning heavily on his cane. “Wait. Fine. Five million.”
I crossed to the desk and grabbed a pen. I wrote down the twenty-one-character alphanumeric code to my Swiss bank account on the edge of a piece of paper. I tore it off and handed it to him. “Half now. Half when I find her.”
Egor nodded. “Agreed, but you have to bring her back to Moscow.”
I gave him a curt nod and turned to leave.
Egor stopped me. “When do you start? Time and discretion are needed. The Petrovs do not know she is missing yet and I don’t want them to find out.”
“I’ll leave tonight.”
I strolled out of my cell around midnight. None of the cell doors were ever locked. What was the point? Escape was useless. You’d die in the frozen tundra climate only feet away from the gate. My client’s son had already been picked up by his father hours earlier. My departure was a little trickier. It wasn’t like the Russian prison system allowed for guests as bodyguards. I’d had to get myself thrown in here under a pretense.
Boldly walking straight up to the main gate, I stalked forward even as the nervous guard cried out a word of warning and fired several rounds into the dirt at my feet. Reaching him, I grabbed the gun and punched him in the face, knocking him out. As the alarm went out over the guard towers, I fired the semi-automatic rifle at each tower, hitting the support beams. The roofs of the two nearest towers collapsed, trapping the guards.
Tossing the rifle aside, I kicked the gate open and strolled out into the open field just as a helicopter landed.
I pulled open the side door and slid inside.
“Where to?” shouted the pilot over the din of the helicopter engine and rotor blades.
I pulled out the photo of the beautiful Katia and grinned. “America.”
Worthington University, Virginia
I reached across the counter and grabbed the security guard by his polyester tie. I dragged him over the top of the counter until he fell in a heap at my booted feet, then leaned down and growled, “Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear? I want a key to Katie Antonova’s room.”
The young man held up his hands, palms out. “Okay! Okay! Fuck, they don’t pay me enough for this shit.”
I had learned that my clever Katia had enrolled at Worthington University as a photography and business major under her mother’s maiden name. She also apparently went by the more American-sounding Katie.
The man circled back around the counter and pulled out a plastic card the size of a standard credit card. He typed something on his keyboard and then shoved the card into a device. He pulled it out. “Here. She’s in the Morrison Building, Room 312.”
I tossed a few hundreds on the counter then took the card. As I turned to leave, he called out, “For a few hundred more, I can give you what they found.”
I frowned as I turned. “What do you mean? What they found?”
The guy shrugged and motioned for me to join him behind the counter. I circled around and followed him into a cramped file room off to the right. He lifted a box off the top of a filing cabinet. The words ’Student Records 2018’ had been crossed off and in a Sharpie marker was the name ’Antonova.’ I reached for the box. The man swung it to the side, slightly out of my reach. “Two hundred bucks.”
I smirked and reached into my pocket, pulling out the bills. I tossed them onto the floor. The man shoved the box at me as he dropped to his knees to pick up the money. I carried the box to the front room and lifted off the lid. Inside were a blue camouflage purse and a digital camera with bits of grass and mud stuck to it. Underneath those items was a pink binder.
I turned to the guard. “What is this stuff?”
He didn’t look up from counting his money. “They found it outside the Arts & Culture building the day she disappeared a week ago.”
I reached into her purse. Her wallet was inside with her student ID, driver’s license, and money. There was also a set of car keys. A sick feeling twisted inside of my stomach. “Were the cops called?”
The guy shrugged. “Don’t think so. University didn’t want the bad press.”
I clenched my teeth, reminding myself this man was just a flunky, otherwise I’d punch his teeth down his throat for the cavalier attitude he had about a woman disappearing off the campus.
Carrying the box through the quad, I located her dorm building. Using the key, I entered her room. From the one bed, it was obvious she didn’t have a roommate I could question. I slid open the closet door. All of her clothes were on hangers in neat little rows. A roughed-up looking metallic pink suitcase rested on the floor of the closet. On her bureau were various items of makeup, a hair dryer, and a brush. The sick feeling in my stomach intensified.
This woman hadn’t left.
She had been kidnapped.
Fucking Egor Novikoff.
That cheap piece of shit.
He probably hadn’t even bothered to have a guard on his daughter even after her brothers were killed after that feud with the Ivanovs. Not that the Ivanovs would be responsible for this. It wasn’t Gregor’s style to use a woman as a pawn in a territory war. Unfortunately there were countless other syndicates including the Russians, Iranians, Italians, and a host of other nationalities that wouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of an unguarded Russian mafia princess to use as leverage.
I spilled the contents of the box onto the bed. After looking through the rest of the items in her purse, I turned my attention to the digital camera. Despite the mud and slight damage to the body, the camera clicked on. I stared down at the lit LED screen as I scrolled through the images on the memory card. The first few were indistinguishable and blurry.
It was the fifth shot that captured my attention.
It was the side of a feminine face, a shoulder, and a male face behind her. He was Japanese with a long, pale face.
The next image was the man’s forearm wrapped around her throat, his hand holding a cloth to her face. This time the camera lens caught Katia’s eyes. The bright spark was gone from her gaze as they stretched open wide with fear. On the wrist of her attacker I could just make out a fuzzy image of something that looked like it might be a tattoo. Using the camera’s controls, I highlighted the section and enhanced the pixels. A distinctive snake tattoo came into focus.
Only one syndicate used that tattoo. The yakuza. Specifically, the Inagawa-kai who were the smaller of the three main factions, but hungry for more power. I’d had run-ins with them before. All bloody and ugly.
I scrolled through the remaining images. There were several of trees, statues, a close-up of an old woman’s face as she prepared lunch in probably the college cafeteria, and then Katia again. Similar to the image I still carried with me, she was staring boldly into the camera lens. This time she was holding her hair back in the wind. Her bright blue eyes were filled with intelligence and wonder.
The reality of the situation hit me like a punch to the gut.
Katia was in the hands of the yakuza and had been for at least a week.
They obviously hadn’t taken her for a ransom or Egor would have been contacted, which meant they had a far darker purpose. If she was still alive, there was a very good chance she was praying for death.
I stared down at the photo and tried to imagine those gorgeous eyes sightless and blank in death.
I held the camera so tightly something cracked inside the plastic and metal body.
I inhaled deeply through my nostrils as blood coursed through my veins.
The hunt was on.
I would find Katia, dead or alive, and make the animals who took her pay.
This was no longer about the money.
This was about honor.
No one took one of our women, no matter what family she was from, and got away with it.