Covet (Dark and Dangerous Book 1)
Many years ago
“Good night, darling,” the boy’s mother said.
“Good night, Mama,” the boy replied.
She smiled down at him, her blue eyes shining with the love and affection.
He smiled back and nestled deeper under the covers, his fingers wrapped tight around the medallion his father had given him for his birthday.
His mother lingered for a moment, and the boy was sure she was smiling, happy to see him as always.
And then the boy gave in fully to sleep and knew nothing more.
* * *
“Don’t make this harder than it has to be, whore!”
The boy sat up in his bed, the loud voice jarring him from sleep. On instinct, he reached for his medallion, the feel of the thin metal against his fingers calming his speeding heartbeat.
He had never heard that voice before, and while he didn’t recognize it, it scared him.
He didn’t like that feeling, being scared.
His father always told him there was nothing to be afraid of, nothing in the dark that could get him.
The boy wasn’t sure he believed that now.
He fought hard to push back the tears he felt burning at the back of his eyes.
He was a big boy now, old enough not to cry; at least, that was what his mother always told him.
That didn’t stop the tear that pushed out of the corner of his eye. He swiped at it, embarrassed, but then pushed away his covers.
Some part of him wanted to stay in his bed, convinced that he would be safe there, convinced that his mother and father would never let anything bad happen to him.
But another part of him, a bigger part, told him to move.
The boy couldn’t give a name to the thing that urged him to move.
He couldn’t ignore it either.
The floor was cold under his feet, smooth enough that he could see the edges of his reflection in the surface.
His mother spent hours making sure their home was perfect, and the boy often helped. His father sometimes teased him for doing woman’s work. The boy didn’t like that, but his mother always reassured him, telling him that there was nothing wrong with knowing how to take care of himself.
She’d never said as much, but the boy understood the implication.
His father was strong, people respected him, but he couldn’t take care of a home. Last summer, his mother had gone on a two-day trip. She’d planned to take the boy with her, but his father had convinced her to leave him. His father had been lost, helpless, and after setting two small fires in the kitchen, had eventually taken the boy to a local pub for all of their meals.
The boy had loved it.
His mother had not.
It was then she’d started to insist that the boy learn how to fend for himself.
He didn’t mind. Those quiet moments with his mother were worth any amount of teasing.
The muffled sound pulled the boy out of his memory and back to whatever was happening now.
Fear chilled him, made it feel like his blood had been mixed with ice water, and that fear got stronger as he approached his parents’ bedroom and the voice he heard coming from within.
The boy moved carefully but quickly, his fingers still tight around the medallion.
This house was the only home he had ever known; he knew exactly which floorboards would creak, and he made sure to avoid them.
He had often walked a similar route when he wanted to sneak a sweet he knew his mother wouldn’t approve of, or even worse, peek at the television that she frowned upon him watching.
But tonight was different than any of those times.
The boy didn’t know why, but he knew it, could feel it with everything inside of him.
“You don’t have to do this.”
His mother, her voice pleading. Even though he couldn’t see her, he knew she was crying.
Hearing that made his own tears flow, but he wiped them away, kept getting closer to his parents’ door.
“Shut up, bitch,” the voice said.
He hated that voice, hated the way it made him feel, hated that it made his mother cry.
His mother’s voice again, still wavering with tears, unlike he had ever heard it before. He had reached his parents’ bedroom but hadn’t yet looked through the partially open door.
He did then, and his eyes were drawn to his father.
He was lying in bed.
The boy would have thought he was sleeping, but the circle of brownish red that was centered on his forehead told the boy that he wasn’t.
The boy’s stomach churned, and he again felt those tears pushing for release.
And he again pushed them back.
Tore his eyes away from his father to his mother.
She was on the floor, leaning on one hip, her legs tucked under her.
Her body looked relaxed, but the boy could see the tension in her shoulders, the streaks of tears that stained her face.
“That’s right. Beg me,” the voice said.
The boy had seen the heavy black boots, but he’d tried to ignore them.
Fear, fear of the type he had never felt before, squeezed at his insides, made it hard for him to draw breath.
Maybe if he didn’t look at where the voice was coming from, some of that fear would go away.
So the boy kept his eyes on his mother as his mother kept her eyes glued on the man.
“Not for me,” she said.
Though her face was wet, her eyes were now dry.
“I’ll do anything you want. Anything. But not for me. Not me,” she said.
“For him?” the voice said.
“For him,” his mother responded.
He didn’t know how he knew, but he did.
The boy was the him they were talking about, and somehow the boy knew this would be the most important conversation of his life.
“You want to save him. Because you love him. You were stupid enough to think you could build a family, play house. Pretend like you aren’t what I know you are, what you know you are,” he said.
The boy had never heard something so menacing, and it felt to the boy like the man’s voice, every word he had spoken, had seeped deep into his bones, like he could feel those words, that menace, curling around his stomach, squeezing his heart until the boy thought it might burst.
His mother knew this man.
The boy understood that, heard the familiarity in her voice. For some reason, hearing that familiarity made it impossible not to look at the menace the boy somehow knew was going to destroy his world.
He kept his entire body still, save his eyes, which he shifted until they landed on the black boots.
The boy stayed still, didn’t even breathe as he looked up the black pants with pockets, kind of like the ones soldiers on TV wore.
The man was strong, wide, reminded the boy of his father, though the man wasn’t soft around the middle like his father was.
The boy’s gaze landed on something brown, leather like the holster where his father kept his gun, the one the boy was forbidden to touch.
When he saw the glint of metal, the boy knew he was right.
He looked away quickly, looked up so fast that his gaze landed on the man’s face.
In that moment, the boy knew that no matter how long he lived—if he lived—he would never forget that face.
He would never forget that voice.
“I would enjoy watching you beg, but I don’t have the time to waste. You see, I have plans for the boy. Someone will pay a lot for him,” the man said.
A strangled, tortured sound escaped his mother’s throat, and the boy looked back at her.
She seemed to have shrunken into herself, seemed frail.
“You will burn in hell for this, Vlad,” she whispered, the tears gone from her voice, and the fight gone from it too.
“I’ll see you there, sweetheart,” the man, Vlad, said.
Then there was a quiet swish, and the boy looked at the man’s hand, saw that it now held a knife.
He looked at his mother again, his gaze now clashing directly with hers.
She held his gaze for a split second, less, really, but then looked away.
But it was enough.
In that moment, the boy saw his mother’s love, her pain, her resignation.
He also saw her command.
And so he did.
He moved away from his parents’ door, to the front, and out.
He ran and didn’t stop running.
Not even when he heard his mother’s first scream.
* * *
Two weeks later
“Get the fuck away from here!”
The patrolman who roamed this area slammed his baton against a brick wall and sent the alley children scurrying.
But not the boy.
He kept going as he had been before, methodically rummaging through the trash for anything that might be salvageable. He was jerked back when the necklace that held his medallion snagged on something.
The boy twisted at the necklace, watched as it and the medallion fell into the trash, both forgotten when he spotted a tomato.
He grabbed at it eagerly and became even more eager when he saw that less than half was rotted.
He dug his fingers into the soft pulp, pulled out as much as he could of the rotted core, and then took a bite.
Or would have if the tomato hadn’t been smacked out of his hand.
Rage, the only thing that had been his companion over these last couple of weeks, surged, as the boy clenched his fist.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
The words were delivered with calm, certainty, amusement.
It was the amusement that gave the boy pause.
So little time had passed, yet so much had changed.
Humor, even at his own expense, was foreign to him now.
His life was about survival, survival and trying to forget.
The boy wasn’t sure how well he was doing either.
“Fuck off,” the boy said, mustering all the bravado he could.
Still, he knew the words were clumsy, seemed false coming from him, something that was confirmed when he heard laughter.
“What are you going to do if I don’t?” the strange boy asked.
The boy had sized up the owner of the voice. Saw that he was older, not a grownup, but not his age either.
He was tall, and looked like he didn’t have to rummage through dumpsters for food.
The boy didn’t care.
The first lesson he had learned out here was that looks were deceiving.
The second was to strike first.
He lunged at the other boy, leading with the shoulder that was frail from lack of food, still sore from one of his last scraps but which still provided the boy with the best opportunity to catch the other boy off guard.
Or at least that had been his calculation.
His opponent stepped aside, then, moving lightning fast, grabbed the boy by his hair and pinned his arms behind him.
“I like you.”
“Fuck you!” the boy responded, trying to twist away.
He was still angry but also afraid, those two feelings the only ones he had felt since—
He wouldn’t think of it, couldn’t think of it.
It was almost like what he had seen, what he knew now to be true, had happened to someone else.
The boy who had run from his parents’ house was gone.
He hadn’t yet decided who would take his place.
“You try to hit me again, I’m going to break your hand,” the other boy said.
One look into dark eyes told him the other boy spoke truth.
“What do you want?” the boy said warily.
One moment passed, another, and then the older boy smiled, loosened his grip.
“Come on, then,” the older boy said.
The boy didn’t know what else to do.
So he followed.
* * *
“You can slow down. Nobody’s going to take it from you,” the older boy said.
They sat in a café, one that was crowded enough that they didn’t draw too much attention.
Not like the boy cared.
All he cared about was eating as much as he could, and he shoveled stew and bread into his mouth, not pausing to take a breath.
A spoon sat beside his bowl, long forgotten, and the boy kept shoving food into his mouth until both were gone.
When he was done, he wanted to lick the bowl, almost did, and it was only the thought of his mother’s lessons on table manners that kept him from doing so.
“What do you want?” the boy finally asked.
He was full, so full that he could feel drowsiness setting in.
He fought it off, kept his gaze on the other boy.
“Maybe I just saw someone hungry and wanted to help them out,” the other boy said.
The boy scoffed, the sound one he didn’t recall ever making before. “There are no free meals,” he said.
His father had said the same thing many times before, but the boy had never quite understood what he meant.
He understood now.
“Smart. Because there aren’t.”
“What do you want?” the boy asked yet again, wariness edging over him.
He knew better than to trust anyone, a lesson he had learned that night, one that he continued to learn every day he was out here.
So he wouldn’t say the older boy was trustworthy. He didn’t know if he would ever say that about anyone ever again.
But he hadn’t beaten him, tried to do worse.
The boy didn’t know if he believed in such things anymore, but maybe his life was starting to look up.
“I need a partner. You might be right for the job.”
* * *
Five years later
“I’m not a child, Ezekiel,” the boy said.
“You’re not ready for this either,” Ezekiel replied.
“You think I’m gonna be a pickpocket forever?” he countered.
He’d done it for years and didn’t doubt he was one of the best on the continent. But he was ready to move up in the world.
“Why are you so anxious to do this?” Ezekiel asked.
“Money. Stealing pays, but this pays better,” the boy said, his voice flat like it always was.
Inside, though, he was anything but.
“Why do I think you’re lying to me?” Ezekiel asked.
“Why do you think I give a fuck what you think?” the boy responded.
“Now I you know you’re lying. But if you insist,” Ezekiel said.
He extended his hand and the gun contained in it.
The boy stared at the gun for a long moment, then finally took it.
He tested the weight in his hand, tried to ignore the feeling of rightness that came over him.
Finally, he turned to the third man in the room.
He was kneeling, hands expertly knotted behind him.
If the boy had bothered to look, he would have seen the pleading in the man’s eyes.
He wouldn’t have cared.
In one fluid motion, he lifted the gun and pulled the trigger.
He then extended it back to Ezekiel, who shook his head.
“Get rid of it. Properly,” Ezekiel said.
The boy nodded, then left to do as he had been instructed.
He waited for some emotion, something to come over him.
He had told Ezekiel he was ready, and then he had proven he was.
Some small part of him had worried that he wasn’t, thought he might chicken out, change his mind, or worse yet, feel regret.
He didn’t, and in fact the only thing he felt was excitement.
Because now he was on the path.
Today had just been a first step. There would be many more, but he was still elated.
He didn’t know how long it would take, didn’t know how, but he knew the day would come.
The memory of his mother’s face, her eyes when she had looked at him one last time, came to him as it often did.
Yes, he didn’t know how, or when, but the man who had killed her would pay.
* * *
“Just give me the information, and I’ll make it stop.”
The man who had once been a scared little boy looked down his current victim, waiting for him to respond.
And he would wait as long as it took.
Patience was a skill that he had acquired, shaped, and mastered over the years. Even still, he could confess that the patience that had made him a legend in the Russian mob was starting to be tested.
He didn’t let it show, though.
He never let anything show.
“I can’t tell you. You know that.”
His victim had said much the same thing before, three broken ribs ago.
“Tell me again why you can’t?” the man asked, his voice revealing no emotion because there was none.
“If I tell you, he’ll kill me,” his victim said, tears beginning to well in the other man’s eyes.
“What I will do to you will be worse,” the man responded.
He wasn’t attempting to brag, wasn’t trying to create a false sense of urgency.
He was simply telling the truth.
He would get what he wanted. How much his victim had to suffer in the meantime was entirely up to him.
The man waited, waited longer, wait even longer still.
After sixty seconds, he sighed.
“If you insist,” he said, balling his fist.
Five minutes later, he paused.
He wasn’t fatigued and could have kept going for as long as it took. But he sensed a change.
He looked at his victim, eyes swollen practically shut, the thing that used to be his nose smashed beyond recognition, his lips puffy, bleeding.
“Are you ready to talk?” he asked, lowering his hand to his side.
His victim’s breath was shallow, labored, probably the slight puncture in his lung starting to catch up with him.
The man was relieved that he had finally reached his breaking point.
Any longer, and that lung would have had to be treated.
The man was more than capable of attending to it but was happy that he wouldn’t have to invest the time.
His victim whispered an address, one that the man immediately committed to memory.
“Thank you,” the man said.
A quick twist and quiet snap later, and his victim slouched against the chair he was tied to, his broken neck instantly ending his life.
The man set about the task of cleaning up the victim, but he was distracted.
He had been working toward this moment for years, a lifetime, and he was on the verge.
He used the years of hard-won discipline to stomp down the excitement that threatened to bubble up.
He was on the path, but he wouldn’t be satisfied until Vladimir Chernakov was dead.
It would have been easy enough to snuff out Vlad’s life; but first, he would suffer.
The man repeated the address in his head and then hastily finished the cleanup job.
He had a plane to catch.