50 YEARS LATER, NEW YORK CITY
"Er, uh, would you like to go for coffee?" he asked, lingering near the door of their college economics classroom.
"Not today," she said. "But maybe some other morning."
She stepped by him into the crowded hallway. He was an American, and although she had lived in Brooklyn for five years, she still felt uncomfortable whenever she socialized with non-Russians. Still, he was handsome and seemed polite. He sat behind her every Tuesday and Thursday morning in the lecture hall. It was an easy class for her. She'd always been good with numbers.
It had taken him several days to screw up his courage. There'd been clumsy attempts. Once, he'd rushed to open the lecture hall door but was too timid to speak. Another time, he'd borrowed a pencil. It was innocent. She was nineteen. He appeared to be about the same.
Perhaps she was making a mistake. What harm would there be in going for coffee? He wasn't a stranger. But her stepfather expected her earlier than usual today. Their restaurant hadn't been open for very long. Her parents and uncle had invested everything in it.
She left the building. The sun felt warm. There were no clouds. Blue sky. It was mid-October and the trees in the park across from the NYU library were dropping their leaves. Despite the sunshine, the air wascrisp. She thought about Moscow. She missed her friends there. She missed her older brother. But she didn't miss the city. It reeked of decay, stagnation, the past. New York was electric. It was her future.
Because she was preoccupied, she didn't notice the U-Haul truck edging up the street behind her as she walked to the subway. But even if she had, it wouldn't have mattered. There was nothing odd about rental trucks in Manhattan. The driver hid behind sunglasses and a navy blue baseball cap with white stitching. New York Yankees.
"That her?" the driver asked.
"Da, da, da," snapped Victor Manakov, the passenger sitting beside him.
The truck eased by the girl and slipped into a no parking zone four car lengths ahead. The driver kept the engine running.
Speaking into his cell phone, Manakov said, "She's the skinny one wearing a white blouse, black pants, carrying textbooks." The description was hardly necessary. The only other people on the sidewalk were a black youngster riding a skateboard and an elderly Hispanic woman walking with the aid of a cane.
Manakov climbed out of the truck's cab. It's rear cargo door jerked upward. Three men crawled out. Each was wearing blue overalls. They appeared to be moving men about to deliver furniture.
"Olga! Can that be you?" Manakov exclaimed in Russian.
She stopped, examined his face, but didn't recognize him.
Stepping closer, he said, "I'm a friend of your brother, Vladimir! We were fighters together in Afghanistan!"
The other men quietly encircled her, yet she didn't sense any danger. She was trying to match his face to a memory. He opened his arms, as if he were about to embrace her. That's when the others sprang into action.
One grabbed her left arm, the other her right, while the third reached around her waist and easily lifted her from the sidewalk. Manakov snatched her legs. Caught completely by surprise, she dropped her books and tried to struggle. But her reaction came too late. They tossed her into the truck. The door slammed down. The vehicle lurched from the curb.
"Shut up! Bitch!" Manakov yelled. He slapped her hard across the cheek. Olga was shoved onto her chest. Her hands and feet were pushed together and bound with gray duct tape. A torn strip was slapped across her lips. It all happened in a matter of seconds. One moment she had been recalling Moscow and daydreaming about the friendly American boy in her class. Now she was being abducted in the darkened rear of a rental truck.
Her body began to tremble. She couldn't control the shaking. Her face burned.
How had they known her brother's name? What did they want?
Most of all: Why me?