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Burned Dreams: Prologue


Nineteen years ago (Alessandro – eighteen years old)


There are two rules when it comes to picking locks.

One—all locks have weak points.

Two—some weak points are more exploitable than others.

That’s the first thing my old man taught me when he took me along to do a job. Too bad that was almost ten years ago, and some of his teachings don’t apply anymore.

I put the flashlight into my mouth and take the lock pick and the tension wrench, focusing the light on the lock in front of me. The damn thing doesn’t have any apparent exploitable weak points, so the only way to crack it will be by disassembling it with skill and sheer determination.

A dog barks somewhere down the street. I pause and listen. The frigid autumn wind blows around me, swirling the dry leaves through the air, and the cold seeps through the thin hoodie into my bones. I left my jacket with Natalie at the house because the heating isn’t working, and it’s been too chilly inside. She caught pneumonia last month, and I didn’t want to risk her getting sick again.

Another round of barking from a dog, but moments later, silence descends over the neighborhood. I cast a glance around me to make sure there aren’t any nosy neighbors close by, then focus back on the lock. Fucking pins and their pressure system. As if disarming the alarm system wasn’t enough, I now need to handle this sophisticated shit, as well.

I’m nearly finished when I feel the touch of cold metal on the back of my neck.

“Hands where I can see them,” a male voice says behind me, “and turn around, slowly.”


I let my tools fall to the ground and raise my hands in the air as I straighten up and turn. A man dressed in jeans and a leather jacket stands in front of me with his gun pointed at my face. What the fuck? I spent three nights casing the joint and the neighborhood and hadn’t noticed any security patrols. This guy is holding the gun as if he knows what he’s doing. An off-duty cop?

“You’re coming with me,” he says.

Yeah. Not happening.

The guy seems fit, and the weapon does give him an advantage. I’d rather risk death than end up in jail like my old man, who’s serving a thirteen-year sentence. I relax my jaw, allowing the flashlight to fall from my mouth. The motion distracts the guy, allowing me to quickly shift my position and get the leverage I’m after. Grabbing the asshole’s wrist with both hands, I twist his arm to one side and slam my knee into his stomach. The guy bends over, coughing. I knee him again, this time to his face, while I try to pry his fingers off the gun. It fires, a gunshot piercing the still air, and the bullet hits the door behind me.

I’m still trying to wrestle his gun away when I hear approaching steps behind me. I glance over my shoulder just in time to see a fist coming at my face.


* * *


“Your name, kid?”

I spit blood and meet the gaze of a middle-aged man in tactical clothing looming over me. The dim light from the bare bulb hanging from the ceiling behind him makes the shadows on his face more profound, emphasizing the line of his tightly clenched jaw.

“Az,” I bite out and take a quick look around the room.

When the motherfuckers hauled me over here, I thought they were taking me to the police station, but now it’s clear that’s not the case. I have no idea where exactly they dragged me or what this facility is, but it most certainly isn’t a police station. The walls are bare, there are no windows, and the air seems stale, almost as if we’re underground. From my kneeling position in the center of the room, the only point of exit I can see is the door on the opposite wall.

The man in the tactical gear curses, obviously not happy with my answer. He appears to be the one in charge.

“I want your full name, not a stupid street name!” he yells.

There’s no way I’m giving him my name. I’ve put in a lot of effort to make sure I’m not on the cops’ radar and there isn’t a record of me in the system. Even if anyone runs my prints, they won’t get anything. And I never carry ID when I’m on a job.

When I don’t respond, he nods to the man on my right. Another blow hits my chin, snapping my head to the side, nearly making me lose my balance as I kneel on the concrete floor. This guy seems hell-bent on dislocating my jaw. I shake my head to clear the fog out of my brain a bit.

A pair of black polished shoes enters my vision. I tilt my head up and observe an older man with glasses who’s now standing next to the boss guy. I noticed him the moment he entered the room, which was shortly after the motherfuckers started beating the shit out of me. He was standing at the side up until now. The man’s unassuming tweed jacket, complete with elbow patches, and checked shirt seem entirely out of place. He reminds me of my history teacher.

“He won’t cooperate, Kruger,” the tweed jacket guy says. “The boy is too old for your project, anyway. And too stubborn. Why don’t we just put him back where you found him?”

“Are you telling me how to run my unit, Felix?” the boss guy barks. “You need to remember your fucking place.”

“The kid is just a small-time thief. Why bother?”

“Because during the two months my men have been following him, he managed to break into eleven houses with top-notch security, without setting off the alarms, a skill that would be extremely valuable to us,” Kruger says and turns to face me. “Where did you learn to bypass the security systems like that, boy?”

I spit out another mouthful of blood. “Suck my dick.”

“Tsk, tsk, tsk . . .” He shakes his head. “Looks like you need an incentive to cooperate. How about I have one of my men go grab that girl of yours and bring her here? I’m pretty sure she won’t take the beating as well as you do.”

My body goes stone-still. How the fuck does he know about Natalie?

“Oh, I see that got your attention.” He smiles. “I always make sure I get to know the person I’m considering recruiting. Their strong points. And their weaknesses.”

“You won’t touch her,” I sneer.

“No? Well, it depends on you, Az. If you do what I say, no one will touch your girl. In fact, you’ll soon be making good money. More than enough to get her out of that dump the two of you have been living in.”

Blood from the cut on my forehead drips into my eyes, making it hard to see. My hands are tied behind my back so I try blinking it away, but it doesn’t help much.

“Do what?” I ask.

“Work for the government. Or, more specifically, me.”

I let my eyes glide around the room one more time, trying to figure out a possible way to escape. To reach the door on the opposite wall, I would need to overpower the men holding me down, as well as this Kruger guy. All of them are armed, but it’s not impossible. The old man in the tweed jacket shouldn’t pose a problem. He looks more like an accountant or something. What’s he gonna do, throw a calculator at me?

“And if I say no?” I ask.

Kruger’s lips curve into an evil sneer. Reaching into a pocket of his tactical pants, he takes out a photo and throws it on the floor in front of me. The picture flips twice in the air before it lands face up. I stare at the slightly blurry face of my girlfriend. The shot was taken while Natalie was exiting the grocery store where she works.

“Let me demonstrate what’s going to happen if you don’t cooperate.” He takes out a knife from a sheath strapped to his belt, crouches in front of me, and thrusts the tip of the blade right into the middle of Natalie’s face. “Do I make myself clear?”

I don’t have the slightest idea who these dickheads are or what their plan for me is. Government, my ass. What interest would they have in someone like me? But the fucker knows where we live. I won’t risk them hurting my girl. So, moving my eyes off the photo, I meet the sinister gaze of the boss guy. “Yes.”

A smirk pulls at his lips. “See, Felix? He’s not stubborn at all. Trained properly, he’ll make a perfect soldier.” The son of a bitch laughs. “Won’t you, Az?”


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