One of the Wicked Online - Harry Shannon

Prologue

Midnight. The young man in the torn Armani suit ran through the desert sobbing like a schoolgirl. His name was Calvin, and he was barely twenty-four years old. He tripped and fell, rose again. The shadowy earth was an uneven mix of rocks and earth, dried sage and cactus. His Gucci shoes were tattered and full of sand.

Calvin risked a look back over his shoulder. He saw a small group of people watching from a flat rock, next to the giant red Hummer. The presence of one man in particular made his stomach roll. Calvin paused for a moment, bent forward sharply at the waist and spewed what was left of three shots of Skyy Vodka and a few cocktail sausages. Bright headlights pinned him there, alone on the pocked surface of a moon.

By the Hummer, someone said, “That is how a man drowns.”

The voice was low and raspy, with only the faintest of accents, and it carried. The speaker was a huge man, nearly seven feet tall and very fit. His grey eyes were as clear and cold as those of a sled dog. He wore his hair in a buzz cut.

“What you mean, Nicky?” The blonde took a pull on her tepid bottle of Crystal. “I not understand.”

Nikolaou Argetoianu spat at her feet. “Slut, you are in America. Learn to speak English.”

The girl flinched. “I am sorry.”

Nicky ignored her, cupped his hands and shouted, “Wait, Calvin, perhaps I have another deal for you. And then you do not have to die tonight. You are interested in this new deal?”

The terrified young man in the distance was still vomiting. Finally, he stood up a bit and waved one hand. He was interested all right.

“A man drowns because he panics,” Nicky said to the girl, who hugged herself as if against a nonexistent cold. “He forgets the water will hold him up, and that most things work out when one stays calm. You see? Now, watch.”

Nicky yanked the hunting rifle to his shoulder, aimed and fired. The silenced weapon emitted a muffled chuffing sound, and a spray of earth appeared inches from the terrified runner’s feet. The boy called Calvin jumped up, pinwheeled his arms, falling backwards into the sand like a snow angel.

“Listen to me,” Nicky called. “I’ll say this one last time. Are you listening, Calvin?”

Calvin sat alone in the sand, crying and praying. Finally he sat up, took a deep breath and forced himself to respond. “Please. Anything.” Calvin hated the weakness in his voice almost as much as the urine staining the crotch of his expensive trousers.

“Oh, but of course you are frightened. This is because I killed your friend, yes? You must understand our position, Calvin. You two were scamming us. Mr. Big Paul Pesci cannot allow such a thing. He must remain a man of respect. So my superiors decided that something had to be done.”

“Please don’t kill me.”

“Do not beg. Now stand up.”

Calvin stood up.

“Walk this way.” Nicky’s voice became both gentle and firm. “And I promise we will not kill you.”

The blonde took another step backwards, closer to the Hummer. “Nicky, I don’t feel too good. Can I go lay down in the car, please?” She knew what that very sudden tone of kindness meant, and she suddenly wanted to be somewhere, anywhere else.

Nicky frowned, as if pondering something. He scratched his fashionable stubble. “I can never get this one thing straight, is it ‘lie’ or ‘lay’?”

“Excuse me?”

“No. Stay here, little bitch. And keep your mouth and legs shut until I ask you to open them again.”

Nicky tossed the rifle to the third figure. “You, keep him covered.” The muscular man named Lucky complied mutely. He glared down the scope and tracked Calvin. The rifle made a small red dot flicker on the kid’s sweaty forehead.

“Calvin, I said come closer. Quickly.”

The kid in the desert shivered like a man with the flu. His last shred of courage deserted him. He stumbled back toward the red Hummer. Why did I let you talk me into this, Rudy? Why? We had enough money to go home; we didn’t need more. Why did I let you get us caught?

Calvin kept his eyes on the ground but tripped anyway. He stared down at the shadowy dirt, forced himself back to his feet and kept walking.

Nicky cleared his throat. “As I was saying, your partner had to be executed. His disappearance will serve as a message to other grifters that it is most unwise to fuck with Big