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Mary Stone - Killer Deal (Stella Knox FBI Mystery Series Book 11)

A Taste of… Killer Deal

Chapter One

Gabriel Vargas ran a gold chain through his fingers, the necklace glinting in the track lights above the counter at Golden Feathers Jewelry Store. Sparks of blinding light burst from the corners of each link. Across the counter, owner Luis Navarro watched as Vargas eyed the piece. Navarro’s narrow face accentuated his sharp cheekbones, and his heavy eyebrows made his dark eyes darker. Seedier.

Vargas owned a jewelry store too. A far more upscale one. In his two decades as a dealer, he’d seen that golden gleam a million times. He liked to boast that more gold had crossed his palms than had passed through the hands of the Incan kings. And yet, every time he plucked a delicate chain from the fingers of a desperate store owner or snagged a stolen ring from a drug-addled mugger, he enjoyed the same tremor of excitement, the same thrill that only a material so ancient and valuable as gold could bring.

And so dangerous.

For centuries—millennia even—people had committed the worst crimes in the name of gold. Thieves murdered merchants. Brothers killed brothers. Countries went to war, filling battlegrounds with dismembered corpses, just so some rich king could bury his elbows in a chest full of shiny coins.

And Vargas got to handle the stuff every day.

Ever since his first job in his uncle’s midtown pawn shop at the age of fourteen, he’d lifted, weighed, and polished gold, bought and sold chains and rings by weight, and moved goods between thieves and stores and other dealers. After his parents died, his uncle was all he had. Well, his uncle and all that gold.

He liked to believe he could spot a fake the moment it came out of a burglar’s pocket or a jewelry store’s safe. The color was wrong. The corners of the links always had a small amount of wear that never afflicted real, solid gold. Plate just felt different.

But he knew he couldn’t rely on intuition. Most scams involving gold were dumb, thoughtless tricks that only fooled clueless customers. Sometimes, though, a good con artist would work some magic. The gold would have that thick, yellow luster, the plating just deep enough to avoid taint, and the base metal heavy enough to pass as the real thing.

He’d been taken by a con artist once, when he, as a kid, paid out over a thousand bucks for a chain barely worth fifty. His uncle had thrashed him so hard, he hadn’t been able to sit down for a week—a painful but well-learned lesson. He wouldn’t be tricked again.

Vargas pulled his loupe out of his pocket and positioned the lens securely into his right eye socket. The links became clearer. He could make out tiny scratches on the surface where the pieces connected, along with the hallmark three figures on the back of the clasp that told him this chain was twenty-two karats.

The piece looked good. He turned the chain over, rolling it back through his fingers. A small blue stone hung from the end. Disappointing, but easy to remove. And no one had etched a name or a dedication into the gold. There was no special date or declaration of love he’d have to laser off and repolish for Buck.

Buck was a dealer who’d wound up in prison. When he was away, his store had taken a hit, forcing him to get clever. After a year in the pen, Buck had come out sober and with a new friend, Elias Colp. Together, they forged a plan to sell hot gold to the Big Man in Miami, who owned chains across the U.S. Apparently, the Big Man was hard up too.

That was where Vargas fit in. Buck knew Vargas had more connections to all manner of jewelry dealers—both of the legal variety and the Navarro variety. And they needed hot gold that could be sold, or “fenced,” cheaply. An inexpensive supply chain kept the profit margin high.

So Buck rolled Vargas into the plot, which began three years back.

Vargas slipped the loupe into his pocket, placed the chain on the counter, and stroked his thick black mustache.

“Okay. This one too.”

Navarro’s face remained placid.

Vargas gathered the chain in his fist and dropped it into a baggie on the counter. The chain landed on top of a pile of gold rings, two dozen gold bracelets, thirty more chains, and three emerald-studded brooches he planned to keep for himself. Buck and the Miami group might not want those stones, but Vargas could find someone else who did.

Behind the counter, Navarro sealed the bag and dragged a calculator closer. His fingers, thin as sticks, pounded the buttons. “Because of, you know, stuff…I take off ten percent.”

Vargas inclined his head in thanks. That was a start, but it wasn’t enough of a discount for a large purchase, even for gold this hot. Navarro himself had basically just admitted that.

Navarro pounded more buttons and flipped the screen around. The number, in bold, black digits was still two grand north of where Vargas wanted it.

Vargas stroked his mustache again. He hated this part of the process. Navarro acted like this every time.

But it wasn’t just Navarro. Every now and then, Vargas would come up against someone who saw price as a matter of pride rather than professionalism. The seller would hold on, refusing to back down, and Vargas would have to walk away, leaving perfectly good gold on the counter and cursing the fool for his lack of sense.

Vargas pulled the bag closer and prodded the gold through the plastic. “C’mon, man, do we have to do this every time? You know what this is. You can’t sell any of this to a street customer. I’m not paying a dime more than eight five.”

Navarro pinched the plastic around a chunky ring topped with a large gold medallion and tilted the piece toward Vargas. “Eleven.”

Vargas understood. Navarro might need to be careful, but there was some valuable stuff in there, and he’d offered a reasonable reduction. They were going to make a deal.

“Let’s just call it ten, huh?”

As Navarro gave the smallest of nods, Vargas relished the relief that washed through him. Ten grand was a helluva price—even for a load this hot. He’d most likely get fifteen out of Buck. Thirteen at least. That was a great profit from one purchase. An easy flip.

Soon after they’d set their scheme in motion, Vargas decided he wouldn’t speculate on how much money the chain stores would make off all this after they reprocessed the merchandise. But in all likelihood, they’d double their profits.

Vargas also didn’t care to speculate on how many other jewelry dealers like him the big guy in Miami had in his employ across the country. Probably lots. Why would he contain himself to Nashville when there was plenty of stolen gold out there waiting to be purchased for pennies on the dollar? It was just a matter of making the right connections. Heck, Buck probably had other gold dealers here in Nashville Vargas didn’t know about.

Not my business.

From his jacket pocket, Vargas pulled out an envelope as thick as a book. He rolled the elastic band up onto his wrist and counted out a hundred bills, placing them carefully on the counter in ten piles of a thousand each. When he finished, Navarro accepted the notes. Picking them up, he ran them under a UV scanner. The size of Vargas’s wad had only thinned by a third.

Beads of sweat gathered on Vargas’s forehead. Only the inner lining of his summer jacket protected the great brick of bills he kept next to his heart. That part always got the adrenaline flowing.

He breathed out slowly. Soon, he’d forget about the money again. Cash had no weight. Not like gold. Especially this much gold.

As he took the bag and dropped the goods into his front jacket pocket, the weight screamed of the contents’ real value. With his thumb, he rubbed the links through the plastic, feeling the sheer worth of all that metal. When he noticed one of his shoulder’s even seemed to hang lower than the other, he had a hard time stifling a smile.

He headed toward the exit, each lopsided step reminding him he was a walking target, a massive jackpot for a mugger on a lucky day.

And this part of town was known for its muggers. Because he didn’t carry a firearm—he never liked violence—he had to stay alert.

Stepping onto the sidewalk, he pulled the door closed behind him. It was eight in the evening, but darkness hadn’t settled in yet. The late July sunset bathed the historic buildings of Nashville’s Melrose neighborhood in a deep orange glow. His car wasn’t far.

Vargas checked the street. An old man with hunched shoulders strolled on the other side, and two young women approached from the left, their shoulders brushing as they laughed, more concerned with last night’s gossip than the gold dealer emerging from a jewelry store.

His confidence returned. Relaxing a little, he headed to his sleek black Buick.

A figure turned the corner, heading his way. The exceptionally tall man had flowy blond hair, and despite the hour, wore large aviator sunglasses.

His Hawaiian shirt was open at the neck, and his Italian leather shoes clopped against the sidewalk, as though their wearer had somewhere to be. An expensive restaurant, maybe, to kick off his Saturday night. Or a cigar store before closing time.

Vargas pulled the key fob out of his pocket and pressed the button to unlock the car as he moved to the far-right edge of the sidewalk. The lights blinked.

The tall man turned and glanced at the car. Then he caught Vargas’s eye and gave him a small smile of acknowledgment.

Vargas nodded back. He was doing just fine. His Buick showcased his success to the world.

Removing his hand from the gold in his pocket, he reached for the car door.

The man, passing Vargas’s shoulder, lifted his arm.

That was when Vargas noticed two things—the chunky gold ring on the man’s middle finger, which had to be over five grand, and the gun those fingers gripped.

The flash from the muzzle blocked the view of both ring and gun. As Vargas flew backward, blood sprayed over his car’s windows. The bottom of his jacket swung heavily behind him, and the weightless paper bills fluttered out from his inner pocket like a kaleidoscope of butterflies.

For the first time in his life, Vargas admired the thin, dirty bills sailing on the warm summer night’s breeze as he fell into a dark soundless void of unconsciousness.

Chapter Two

At eleven thirty on a Sunday morning, the office was the last place Special Agent Stella Knox wanted to be. Her weekend presence in Nashville’s FBI Resident Agency usually meant she was trying to stop a serial killer working his way down a list of victims. Or navigating through a war between drug dealers or gangs while her team dodged bullets, bombs, and shrapnel.

But not today.

This Sunday, she wasn’t drawing up lists of suspects or reviewing interview notes filled with harrowing homicide details. With Special Agent Hagen Yates by her side, she faced an even bigger challenge. He wasn’t there as emotional support so much as to ensure she saw the task through.

She took a deep breath and steeled herself.

“You made it sweet, right?”

Hagen inclined his head. “Sweeter than I make it for myself.”

The mug of gently steaming coffee cooled as Stella drew up her courage. She licked her lips.

She hated coffee. She’d first tasted the beverage the morning after a college party when a roommate had persuaded her that a triple espresso was the best way to beat a hangover. Turned out, the smell, the bitter flavor, and the light buzz from the caffeine was the best way to summon her hangover.

Hot cocoa was the only way to start the day, the only hot drink that could both wake her up when she needed and help her sleep when thoughts of a case kept her tossing and turning at night.

But Hagen, a connoisseur of fine beverages, craft beer, and Arabica beans, had pushed her to give coffee another chance. In a moment of weakness, she’d surprised him by agreeing.

“And you put milk in it? A lot of milk?”

“It’s more milk than coffee.”

Stella picked up the mug and drew it toward her. The drink, the color of a muddy river, gave off a sharp, nutty, smoky odor. All of it was just so gross.

“Bravest thing I’ve ever done, you know.”

Hagen’s eyebrows rose. “You’ve been shot.”

“Still.” She hesitated. “Here goes.”

She took a sip. The familiar, reassuring thickness of the milk struck her first. As soon as she relaxed, though, the beans barged through, bitter and sharp, with a hint of earth and…mildew? Moss? She might as well have been sucking the residual water out of the bottom of a planter.

Stella set the mug on the desk and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “That’s disgusting. I can’t believe you drink this stuff for fun. I thought you said you added sugar.”

“I did. A spoonful.” He lifted the mug from the desk and carried it toward the office kitchen. “I’ll make you a hot chocolate. But Stella, I’m going to get you drinking coffee. Little by little, we’ll get you there.”

“Uh-huh.” Stella wiped her tongue with a napkin. “I’ll get you eating boxed mac and cheese first.”

Hagen’s horrified gasp, audible from the other side of the hallway, elicited a chuckle from Stella. He could be such a snob sometimes.

The son of a rich lawyer, Hagen was used to the good things in life, even if many of those good things had ended with his father’s murder. She got that. The best things in her life had ended when her father was murdered too.

A police sergeant, Keith Knox had been killed on duty, his death ordered by the very same man who’d taken out Hagen’s father. The same man who just so happened to be her dad’s colleague on the Memphis PD.

Over the last few weeks, they’d found the asshole who’d pulled the trigger, Donald Monahon. He’d died in a fall from the fifth-floor fire escape of his apartment. More importantly, they’d also discovered who’d given Donald his heinous marching orders.

Joel Ramirez had been her father’s partner on the force. He was also an undercover FBI agent sent to infiltrate a network of dirty cops tied to criminal organizations. For most of her life, Stella believed he died shortly after her father, but Hagen and Stella had recently discovered he was alive and well—living under witness protection.

Now they needed the evidence that would enable the U.S. marshals to hand him over to face charges. Hagen had stopped looking for the revenge that had Stella worried he’d kill— rather than arrest—Ramirez. At last, they were working together, tracking down the one criminal Stella wanted to bring in more than any other.

But the closer they got, the harder the investigation became.

Stella dragged the file on her desk closer.

She preferred physically inspecting crimes scenes over visually inspecting photos. When she stepped under the police tape, a victim’s body was only one element in a site brimming with items that told a story.

The body’s location could suggest to an investigator something about the victim’s life, even before they saw a face, a pair of open eyes, or a license with a name and an address. The pattern of the bullet holes revealed where the shots had been taken. The number of stab wounds revealed whether the attack was emotional and frenzied or cold and indifferent or even unplanned. The smell could reveal how long the corpse had lain there.

In the few steps between the tape and the body, the events of the murder would start to come together.

Crime scene photos were more akin to assessing an event on TV as opposed to being there live. She could only see what the photographer recognized as worthy of her investigative eyes. All the other elements that created the scene and disclosed so much had to be gleaned from the corners of the image—or worse, from her imagination.

The first photograph was a close-up of the side of Memphis PD Sergeant Alex Handley’s head. The bullet hole in his temple was large and clear, a deep red mess no one could’ve survived. Even still, from the size and definition, she could tell this was the entrance wound. The exit wound at the other side of the man’s head would be far more gruesome. Stippling over the top of his ear suggested a close-range shot—close enough for Stella to consider suicide, had she no other details about the victim’s circumstances.

Stella put the photo back on the desk and lifted the next. The photographer had used a wider angle here. An untouched plate of cornbread sat in the center of the image, next to the bloody corpse. No one killed themselves between receiving their order and consuming their food. One usually ate their final meal. And that cornbread looked too good to waste—if it hadn’t been buttered with viscera, that was.

In the top right corner of the picture, she could see part of the view out through the window. A wide gravel-covered parking lot bled into a small country road that ran through pastureland burnt orange from the summer sun. Whoever picked the location for this diner certainly hadn’t chosen the place for its foot traffic.

For the most part, the photo showed the dining area, which consisted of a few booths and three rows of empty tables surrounded by cheap chairs with rust decorating their tubular metal legs.

Handley’s head rested to the side of the plate of cornbread. Half a glass of water stood unfinished by his knife. Next to him, a place had been set. The fork was at an angle, its tines pointing toward the window.

Someone Handley knew had sat beside him. They must’ve disturbed the place setting.

Even without reading the interview notes, Stella had a prime suspect in mind. Considering Handley’s knowledge of Donald Monahan, it would make sense that Handley’s killer was Samantha Monahan, Donald’s daughter. She wouldn’t be surprised if they’d been working together. Stella assumed the woman had learned about Handley leaking information to the FBI after she escaped from prison.

That was what made Handley’s loss an even bigger blow. Now Stella would never know what had motivated him to drop a trail for her and Hagen to follow.

A corrupt cop, Handley might have suffered a twinge of conscience. Maybe he wanted to make amends without landing himself in too much trouble. Or, perhaps, he just wanted Samantha to stop, to leave her world of crime and run away with him.

Stella could never ask him, and Samantha was in the wind.

Hagen placed a mug on the desk next to the file. The sweet scent of hot cocoa drifted over the pictures of Handley’s bloody head. Stella shut the file, closed her eyes, and took a sip.

Much better. Cocoa always beat coffee. And it certainly beat homicide.

“You make a mean cup of cocoa, Hagen. Your talents are wasted on coffee.”

He pulled out his chair and took a seat at the desk in front of her. The Agency’s open-plan office wasn’t the most comfortable work environment. Hagen was usually chatting with their colleague Ander Bennett while their other colleague Chloe Foster worked hard to be a glowering presence in the room.

Stella would’ve preferred her own workspace, however small, or a table in tech expert Mackenzie Drake’s room. Since Stella had started at the Agency, she and Mac had become good friends. But today, with the rest of the chairs empty, and her and Hagen finally working well together, Stella didn’t mind the setting.

He tapped the file. “How are you getting on with this?”

“I don’t know.” Criminal files were usually puzzles, stories waiting for an ending. This unfinished story was working its way into her bones. “Makes me sad, I think. If it was Samantha Monahan, it’s such a cold thing to do. To kill your lover. Shoot him in the head at close range in the middle of the day. It’s like she just didn’t give a shit.”

Hagen rocked on his chair. The springs squeaked. “Yeah, takes a special kind of person to do that. The kind we build our most secure prisons for.”

That wasn’t what Stella meant. “The next place that gets her will certainly have to be a lot more secure than the last one. But I just…I can’t imagine what was going through her head when she sat in front of her lover, pulled out her gun, and murdered him. Just like that.” She was getting herself worked up. “He couldn’t have suspected it. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have agreed to meet her. So she was able to set up the meeting, maybe even have a little small talk with him, all while the chef prepared the order.”

“Then…” Hagen mimicked holding a gun to his temple. “Boom.”

Stella nodded. “We’ve dealt with some real psychopaths in this business, but I don’t think many have been that cold.”

Hagen gathered a stapled bundle from next to his keyboard. “Could almost admire her dedication to duty.”

His eyes met Stella’s. He must’ve seen the concern his answer inspired because he lowered the pages. The skin next to his dark-green eyes crinkled, adding warmth to his usually hard and impenetrable face.

Almost. But honestly, we know Samantha Monahon’s bad news, and so was Alex Handley. He was useful, but he was still a crooked cop, and we know very little about the extent of the crimes he committed. Considering who he worked for, I think we can assume they weren’t misdemeanors.”

Hagen was right. Handley was no innocent victim. He might not have deserved to die, but he had walked a dangerous path, choosing to work for the organization responsible for their fathers’ deaths. Maybe he’d killed someone else’s father too.

Her sadness over his betrayal hardened. What really mattered was that they’d lost a valuable source of information.

Hagen folded back the first page of his stapled bundle. Mac had put together a list of the phone numbers Ramirez had called while he’d been undercover. Hagen was checking them one by one, running a finger down the page and pausing occasionally to highlight a line and tap on the keyboard.

“Find anything?”

He shook his head. “Not yet. Mostly a lot of calls to pizza companies, to your dad’s number, and to that girlfriend of his. A couple of other numbers here I’m still trying to identify. But if just one of them is from a member of the team that sent him undercover, we’ll be in the money.”

Stella reached across the desks and ran her thumb up the side of Hagen’s bundle. There were more than fifty pages there. Hagen’s idea was good. No one knew an undercover officer better than the person who put them in the field.

But digging the needle out of that haystack could take him a while.

She reopened her folder, pushed the photos aside, and focused on the witness report. Fred Grange, the owner, chef, and sole employee of Fred’s Diner—the country kitchen where Handley was shot—was the only other person present when the shooting happened.

Fred claimed to have heard nothing. Sworn he’d been out back taking a cigarette break before returning to find the body. The killer was long gone by then, and Fred said he didn’t know them or the victim.

But Fred had a record longer than the giant ribs he dished out. A simple reminder of the kind of sentence he’d soon face had him releasing more information.

He identified the killer as a blond woman. Maybe dark blond. Fred didn’t really notice. But he could tell she and the victim knew each other. Again, Fred repeated that he didn’t know her. Stella didn’t believe a word. Except for the blond part. Samantha Monahon had dark brown hair, but she could have easily dyed it after she’d escaped. Or Fred just lied.

Hagen lifted the sheet he was reviewing, flipped back to a previous page, and highlighted a phone call log. He clacked at the keyboard, frowned, and typed again before turning back to yet another page he’d already gone through to highlight a different log entry.

Stella lowered her own folder. She could see he was on to something.

He read the screen, clicked, rubbed his square chin, and grinned. “Stella?”

“Hmm?”

“I think this number is Ramirez’s handler for when he went undercover.”

Excitement flooded Stella’s veins. Ramirez’s handler would have received regular reports from the field, as they’d have to ensure the officer was fit to continue. The handler knew everything.

“You sure?”

Hagen tapped a highlighted line on the paper. “No, but I think so. Look, this number pops up over and over. Same time every week. The conversations all last less than four minutes, except for the last call of the month. That one always lasts longer. It looks like the pattern of weekly check-ins, followed by a monthly debrief. So I ran the number. It’s registered to the Bureau. Has to be his handler, right?”

That was it. Had to be.

Stella pulled the sheet toward her. All she noticed was a number and a time stamp, just like all the others on the page. And yet, that number could be the break they needed.

“You get a name?”

“Yep. Name, number, and an address in Nashville. Jackpot. The only weird thing is that, after a few months, the calls suddenly drop off entirely.”

Hagen grabbed his phone, turned on the speaker, and dialed. As the line rang, Stella set her folder aside and came around the desk to join him, her heart thumping in her chest.

A woman’s voice answered, strong and confident. “Carla Reaves here.”

Hagen glanced at Stella. “Morning, Carla, this is Special Agent Hagen Yates of the FBI’s Nashville Resident Agency. I understand you worked on a corruption investigation in the Memphis Police Department. This would’ve been about fourteen years ago.”

The line was silent for a moment. “What’s all this about?”

They had her. Stella bit her bottom lip, resisting the urge to grab the phone and plead with Carla to talk to them. This was Hagen’s call. His find.

Hagen held the microphone closer to his mouth. “We’re looking into the activities of an undercover officer. We think you were running him. He was using the name Joel Ramirez.”

After an even longer pause, Reaves said, “Listen, I’m pretty busy right now, and I don’t want to do this on the phone. Why don’t you come over, and we’ll talk in person? About three at my house? I guess if you’ve found my number, you’ve also got my address.”

Stella could barely contain her excitement. She once had fond memories of Joel Ramirez, with his great barbecue sauce and the deep laugh he often shared with her father. Like Gail Hampden, Joel’s ex who said he’d physically abused her, Carla Reaves was going to give her a very different perspective on the most impactful period of her life.

Hagen agreed to the time and hung up with a big grin on his face.

“Guess we’re free ’til three. Lunch?”

Stella liked the sound of an early and long Sunday lunch. She tucked away the folder, grabbed her bag, and followed Hagen into the hallway, where they met Caleb Hudson as he strolled into the office.

Caleb was a big guy with a deep voice, a veteran who specialized in investigating corruption and financial crimes. He was rarely in the field, spending most of his time reading spreadsheets and tracking company records.

He looked as surprised to see them as they were to see him. “Can’t keep y’all away from this place, huh?”

Hagen raised an eyebrow. “Could say the same of you. Looking for an account book to rectify to facilitate your Sunday nap?”

“Man, if you knew the stories those accounts told, you’d never sleep.” Caleb fixed his dark eyes on Hagen. “But I’m here about a murder. A shooting near a jewelry store in Melrose last night. Police figure it was just a robbery, but the name of the victim rang some bells down in Florida. They think there might be a connection to a corruption case they’re working on. Asked me to look into it. I’m about to update Slade.”

That sounded ominous. A case that could reach halfway across the country might be the start of something big. Stella hoped they’d have time to look into Ramirez before this thing blew up.

“Let us know if you need any help.”

“I will.” Caleb strode toward his office, then slowed and glanced over his shoulder. “If this pans out, I’ve got a feeling I’m going to need a lot.”

The price of gold has never been higher.

FBI Special Agents Stella Knox and Hagen Yates are closer than ever to tracking down the one criminal they want to bring to justice more than any other—Joel Ramirez, the dirty FBI agent who ordered the deaths of their fathers. But one horrifying case has bled into the next since Stella moved to Nashville’s Violent Crimes Unit. This time, it’s a shooting in broad daylight near a jewelry store. An apparent robbery.

Except the victim, a two-bit gold trader, is tied to a corruption case in Miami. And the killer didn’t take anything. Not the bag of gold jewelry on the victim. Not the twenty thousand dollars cash in his pocket. Read More