A Taste of... Killer Spirit
Reese Wilder yanked down the zipper of her cheerleading bag and pushed her damp skort and canvas shoes inside. Despite the late hour and the gym’s cool air, a drop of sweat slipped from her temple and landed next to her towel. She pulled out her shea butter hairspray and hit her roots before her hair frizzed too badly. Satisfied she’d done the best she could, Reese tossed it back into her bag and grabbed her water bottle.
After nearly six hours of solid cheer practice, only a swig of water remained in her bottle. She swallowed it greedily and resolved to fill up at the water fountain outside.
She was exhausted. Her back ached, her arms were sore, and a bruise was developing on her left shoulder. Practice had been a good two hours too long. And on a Saturday night too. Most of the team left at seven, but Taylor, Olivia, and she had stayed behind to work on a new partner stunt for the Chapel Island Crows’ opening game, two and half months away.
Reese tossed the empty bottle back into her bag and dragged out her sneakers.
The office door banged open and Coach Nathania Burbank waggled her fingers over her shoulder as she crossed the floor. “Well done, girls. Awesome practice. Sorry I have to run!”
Reese lifted a thumb in reply. She was too tired to even talk, but Olivia spoke for her. Of course, she did.
“Bye, Coach Burbank. Thank you for staying. We really appreciate it.” Under her breath, Olivia added, “Probably rushing off to her boyfriend’s to get laid.”
Burbank grinned, her perfect white teeth a stark contrast against her dark skin. “No problem. Don’t forget to lock up.”
The back door swung closed behind her, paused, and with the loud squeak the spring always made as it kicked in, slammed shut with a bang that could have been mistaken for a gunshot.
Coach Burbank was nice and all, but she never knew when to quit. She should have told Olivia to let them all go home at seven. They had the whole summer to prepare for the opening game. It didn’t make sense to put in this much energy now.
They were wasting their time.
If Coach Burbank had made her the team captain instead of Olivia, the team wouldn’t be practicing so hard in June. Reese was much more sensible. She knew how to balance cheer with school requirements and social life.
Junior year had just finished, but she still had summer volunteer work to keep up with National Honor Society requirements. Just because she already had a scholarship to Florida State didn’t mean she could slack off now. That award depended on grades, extracurriculars, and community service.
Reasonable hours. That’s what Reese would have done. The team would have been happier, more together, more content. They were supposed to be a cheer team, after all.
But no. Olivia always had to have what she wanted, and she had to have it now.
Reese dropped to the floor and rested her back against the wall. Her thighs were stiff, her ankles sore. She jammed her feet into her sneakers.
Olivia plopped down next to her, tying her own laces.
A few feet away, Taylor pulled her sweatpants over the shapewear she didn’t really need, her tight brown ponytail flipping with every move. Since they were the only ones in the school, they didn’t bother heading to the locker room.
“You were okay tonight, Reese.” Olivia didn’t even look up from her shoes as she began her lecture. “Better than last time. I’ll get you there.”
Irritation ran through Reese’s every cell. “You’ll get me there? If you’d watched more carefully, I wouldn’t have fallen twice.” Reese rolled up her sleeve to show the bruise blooming on her dark skin.
Olivia took the band out of her hair and let her long, blond curls fall to her shoulders. “Not my fault. You didn’t count out. If you don’t communicate, accidents happen.”
Reese noted, with just a little pleasure, that Olivia’s sweaty hair stuck to her head, and her curls weren’t as bouncy as normal.
Turning her back on Reese, their fearless captain addressed Taylor, who had finished changing and was closing her duffel bag. “You have to work harder, Taylor. You keep screwing up those splits, and you’re not going to leave me any choice.” The lecturing tone grew deeper, darker. “I told you, I told both of you, if you can’t cut it, you’re off the team. No free rides here, no second chances.”
Taylor tucked the duffel bag under her arm. “You’re a true leader.” Sarcasm dripped from every word.
“Now, now.” Reese’s tone was equally bitter. “Nothing is more important than cheer, remember?”
“That’s right.” Olivia, not catching any of the sarcasm headed in her direction, patted Reese on the shoulder, right on her growing bruise. “That’s my team mantra. Don’t you forget it. What’s the mantra, Taylor?”
Taylor jammed a hand on her hip and scowled.
Olivia didn’t bother to look up at the brunette. “Taylor?”
Taylor sighed heavily. “Nothing is more important than cheer.” Her melodic tone could have rivaled the big purple dinosaur on kid’s TV.
“That’s right.” Olivia pushed to her feet. “If you want to stay on my team, it’s cheer first, boys, and other obligations whenever.”
Reese rolled her eyes. Olivia was two seconds away from growing a toothbrush mustache that would make Hitler jealous. She was such a little tyrant.
She saved her sympathy for Taylor. That girl was desperate to join her and Olivia at Florida State, but unless she improved her grades, she’d have no chance. Reese would have made sure Taylor had the time to study as well as practice. She cared because that’s what a good leader did.
But no. Chapel Island had the opportunity to induct their first Black cheer captain, but they’d voted for Barbie-blond Olivia instead. It wasn’t fair.
The air shifted as the gym door opened and slammed shut again with a squeak and a bang. The warm night air came in along with Coach Burbank, who’d probably forgotten something.
Prepared to offer her assistance, Reese looked up.
Her smile turned into a frown.
It wasn’t Coach Burbank. This person was shorter and slimmer than Coach. The baggy, black sweatpants were too thick for the summer heat, and the hoodie was pulled up over a face hidden behind a ski mask.
Olivia and Taylor froze in place like a couple of mannequins in a department store window.
Reese stood, sliding her back up the wall. Her thighs screamed at the movement, but she barely felt it as adrenaline shot through her system.
That’s when Taylor screamed.
Reese’s gaze passed from Taylor to the rifle in the figure’s hands.
This had to be a prank.
Taylor flew backward as though she were struggling to perform a poorly executed cartwheel. A red cloud sprayed from her chest as she collapsed to the floor.
“Hey!” Olivia’s voice, trained to lead crowds of hundreds in cheers, sounded weak against the echo of the shot.
Gray smoke drifted from the end of the gun. It smelled like firecrackers.
Olivia crashed into the wall. Blood splattered everywhere as a red stain crept across her chest. She fell in a heap at Reese’s feet.
Frozen in shock, Reese lifted her hands. Her fingers trembled. Her breath came in shaky gasps. “Wait—”
The figure advanced. The muzzle of the rifle rose.
Reese Wilder’s hopes for Florida State disappeared in a cloud of gray smoke.
FBI Special Agent Stella Knox didn’t care that the hotel on Atlanta’s Peachtree Street looked more like a building full of student dorms than a place for tourists hoping to relax in Georgia’s capital city. The brown walls suggested a government institution. The white beds, beige tables, and plastic-coated parquet floors almost turned that suggestion into a homage.
But there was a bed. She dumped her bag on the desk and flopped backward, groaning as her spine connected with the stiff mattress.
She’d spent the past four hours sitting in a car with her colleague, Special Agent Hagen Yates. While she’d managed to nap for at least one of them, her body now wanted to crawl under the covers and sleep until the evening.
Her head, though, was telling her something entirely different. It was urging her to get up, leave her bag, and rush straight to Joel Ramirez’s family’s address.
The man she’d known as “Uncle Joel” had been her father’s partner on the Memphis police force. They were still partners when Stella was fourteen years old, and her father was shot to death in the line of duty.
In the months that followed, Uncle Joel had helped her family cope. He’d been there when Stella’s brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and he’d given Stella and her mother a shoulder to cry on after Jackson’s death. The day Uncle Joel was also reported to have been killed at work less than a year later, Stella had felt like she’d lost almost everyone she’d ever loved.
Stella propped herself up on her elbows, anger and confusion at war. Uncle Joel wasn’t all he’d appeared to be. She was going to learn the truth.
Mackenzie Drake, a cyber specialist at the Nashville FBI’s Violent Crimes Unit and her newest friend, had discovered that Joel Ramirez had actually been working undercover in Memphis, and his real name was Matthew Johnson.
Matthew Johnson had left behind a family in Atlanta.
Mac had managed to locate the alias and address of Ramirez’s family. His real family.
With their previous case over, Hagen had offered to drive Stella to Atlanta to help with her personal investigation. Somewhere in this city, perhaps no more than a few minutes away, were people who had known her Uncle Joel. And it was possible that their Matthew Johnson had told them something important about her father’s death, which she was about to discover.
Stella wasn’t sure which new truth amazed her more. That Joel Ramirez had a family or that she was about to see them.
She had so many fond memories of Uncle Joel. She had listened through the floorboards as he and her father talked through the night. He used to play with Jackson, her brother, in the garden during the family’s weekend barbecues. The surprise on his face the first time she whipped a forehand smash past his outstretched tennis racket was a memory she’s always treasured.
But the memory that haunted her was the night he’d turned up at her mother’s house stinking of beer and slurring his speech.
“Psst. Hey, Stella.” He leaned a shoulder against the post on the veranda and tapped on the living room window, which she’d left open for the night breeze. “Come on out here. I’ve got…’scuse me. I’ve got shomething to tell you.”
Stella was lying on the sofa, reading an old Dashiell Hammett book. The hour was late. Her mom was already in bed. Uncle Joel didn’t usually turn up at this time, and he never came around drunk. Something seemed very off.
She left the book facedown on the cushion and opened the door.
Uncle Joel stumbled to the two-seat cane chair that looked out over the front yard.
Stella frowned. “You okay, Uncle Joel? Maybe I should go get Mom.”
He dropped his chin and waved a finger. “Uh-uh. Got a secret for you. Just for you, Stella. Shh.” He tapped the space next to him.
Stella shook her head. He stank of booze. “I’m fine right here, thanks.”
“Okay. You stay there. Now, shh.” He lifted his finger to his lips. “What I’m about to tell you is top secret. Y’hear me?”
She nodded and folded her arms. The night was warm, but a chill had begun to sink into her bones. Uncle Joel was usually full of jokes and gentle teasing. She’d never seen him like this before, drunk and secretive. He’d certainly never confided in her. She didn’t know if she wanted to hear his secrets.
“So…your dad, God bless his soul, he was…he was killed. Killed by drug dealers.”
A block of concrete settled in Stella’s chest. She already knew her father had been killed by drug dealers. Her mother had told her the basic details. He’d been shot in a warehouse and left to bleed out. This was no secret, and she didn’t want to relive it.
“I know that. Look, Uncle Joel, maybe you should—”
“But what you don’t know…” His voice drifted. His gaze stretched out over the dark lawn. Whatever he saw was invisible to her. He was looking at something, reliving something only he could see. “Is who told them about your dad? Who fixed the whole thing up? You don’t know that, do you? Huh?”
Stella froze. She had always assumed that her father’s death had been a kind of work accident, one of those risks that every cop takes. Wander into a drug den and get caught in a shoot-out. Die.
But if his death had been planned, if someone had organized it, that was something different. Whoever it was had gotten away with killing her dad. He was loose. He faced no justice. The concrete in her chest shattered. Its dust and debris dazed her. She couldn’t quite catch her breath.
She left the doorway and sat next to him on the chair. Every one of his pores exuded the stink of beer and whiskey. She swallowed against it. “Who? Who arranged Dad’s death, Uncle Joel? Who did it?”
He leaned forward until his mouth almost touched her ear. Despite the short distance, he whispered. “Dirty cops. That’s who. One of his own.”
Stella’s breath came in short, rapid gasps. A fellow cop killing her father was impossible, unthinkable. Cops protected people. Cops took care of each other. Cops were the people she’d grown up with. Her dad’s friends. People she trusted.
“Who? Who did it?”
Uncle Joel didn’t answer. His head had fallen back, and his breathing turned into snoring. Stella patted him twice on the cheek, but it made no difference. She helped him to his feet, laid him out on the sofa, and went to bed. He was gone when she woke up in the morning.
He was dead before the day ended.
In the years since, throughout college and the two years she’d spent as a uniformed officer in the Nashville police force, Stella had wanted to know who those cops were. She needed to be careful, though. That’s why she went to work in Nashville instead of Memphis. She was close to the city where her father died, but not close enough to trigger anyone’s radar while she spent countless hours researching every officer on the Memphis force. Which ones had betrayed her father and plotted his death?
The desire to find the faceless men who murdered her father burned in her heart. She would put them in front of a judge. She would lead them to their prison cells herself. The thought was always somewhere in the back of her mind. She would bring them to justice, no matter how long it took.
Stella had joined the FBI to expand her access to information and networks that might lead her to the people responsible.
A knock on her door forced Stella’s mind from the past. She pushed off the bed and opened it.
Hagen stood in the hallway, an arm resting against the jamb. He was just as neatly turned out on his day off as he was on duty. His dark blue jeans fit his long legs to perfection, and his open-necked t-shirt clung to his body, outlining his broad chest and narrow waist as though he’d just showered in his clothes. It was a small miracle to look so pulled together after driving so many hours. And especially after the week they’d had hunting down a lunatic using a family in a brutal experiment of prisoner and executioner.
He ran a hand through his wavy, brown hair and leaned on the doorframe, taking in her accommodations. “Huh. I see your room’s as pretty as mine. You ready to get some lunch? I saw a Korean barbecue place as we were coming in. Love that.”
Stella grabbed her day bag from the desk. “Actually, no. Let’s do that tonight. I saw a fridge in reception that had some sandwiches. Let’s grab something quick and head out. I just want to get there, you know?”
Hagen pressed his hand to his stomach. “Stella, you’re killing me. Vending machine sandwiches?”
He stepped aside and called the elevator. They emerged on the ground floor next to a machine that offered turkey and chicken sandwiches, burritos, and potato chips.
Hagen scowled at the fridge. “We’re seriously gonna do this?”
Stella laughed. Hagen was a foodie, a guy who’d happily spend a Sunday morning buying ingredients from an East Nashville farmer’s market and lose the afternoon turning out French recipes with names Stella couldn’t pronounce into meals she’d never eat.
She blamed his fussiness on his upbringing. Hagen was the son of a wealthy criminal lawyer with a client list that included gang leaders, probable mobsters, and murderers. He was all set for an easy rise to adulthood until his father was gunned down on the court steps.
The murder, which occurred at the same age that Stella had lost her own father, knocked much of the spoiled brat out of Hagen. But the lifestyle that was cultivated when his dad was alive had turned him into a foodie with a love for all things gourmet. Now, even as a public employee with little time or money to indulge in fancy dishes, he still snubbed his nose at even the mention of fast food.
And vending machine food offended his sensibilities.
Grinning, Stella opened the fridge door and pulled out a chicken sandwich before dropping a beef burrito into his hand. “Quit bitching, get biting.”
Hagen sniffed the package. “Mm, polythene. My favorite topping.”
They paid at reception, nuked his burrito, and tucked into their food as they made their way toward the parking lot. Hagen was right. All she could taste was plastic wrap, and his blank expression suggested a dirt sandwich would’ve been more appealing than that burrito.
She took another bite and spoke through a mouthful of soft bread and flavorless chicken chunks. “It’s good, huh?” She didn’t even feel bad about lying because his wrinkled face was reward enough.
Hagen didn’t reply. He chewed slowly as they headed toward his Corvette. Cherry red, the car was unmissable between a gray Cadillac and a silver Ford Escape. He stopped at the door, grimacing at the remaining half of his burrito. Shaking his head, he lobbed it toward a garbage can near the wall. The burrito bounced off the rim and landed on the concrete.
“Son of a…” He walked over and dropped it in the can. “You done?”
Stella took a final bite of her sandwich and tossed the remains after Hagen’s burrito. Her shot landed perfectly in the trash bag, swish.
She already regretted the quick meal. Her stomach was a mess of nerves. Soon, she’d meet her Uncle Joel’s family, the people who might be able to tell her who was responsible for her father’s murder. Anticipation was always stronger than appetite.
She sank into the passenger seat next to Hagen. The car roared into life, its V8 engine screaming to be released from the parking lot and deliver its zero to sixty in 2.8 promise.
Hagen turned to Stella. “So, where are we going?”
Stella pulled out her phone and fed the details into the GPS. The drive to the house near Piedmont Park would take less than fifteen minutes. Stella’s stomach tightened further.
As they made their way past the office buildings on Ellis Street, neither of them spoke. Stella peered out her window. The ornate brownstone of the Atlanta Legal Society building made way for a pair of concrete parking lots, but Stella barely noticed.
She’d rehearsed this meeting a million times in her head. In her imagination, she sat with Uncle Joel’s widow, sharing memories and putting together a list of dirty cops Uncle Joel had suspected.
Still, Stella didn’t know what she would say when she knocked on the door.
Hi, I’m Stella Knox. I was just wondering if your husband, who lived away from you for a while undercover, ever told you who might’ve murdered my dad? Just…over Sunday dinner or something?
Hagen cleared his throat, seeming to sense her mood. “You want me to put the radio on?”
Stella forced a smile. “No, I’m good. It’s just…you know.”
“Yeah, I know.”
Stella didn’t reply. Maybe he did understand. The people who killed Stella’s father were also the same kind of people who killed Hagen’s dad. She wasn’t sure whether he was there to lend a hand and another pair of investigative eyes or if he wanted the same information she did.
She glanced at him. Hagen usually wore a serious expression, but now, his face was drawn, his jaw set. He had that same focused gaze he often wore on their way to interview a murder suspect. Stella turned her attention back to the road.
Hagen adjusted his hands on the steering wheel, his knuckles whitening from the intensity of his grip. “Hey, it’ll be fine. Try not to think too much. Sometimes, you just need to trust your gut.”
Stella nodded but didn’t reply. She wasn’t sure what her gut was telling her.
They turned up Barnett Street. The apartment buildings and restaurants turned into low-slung houses, their vinyl-sided walls painted in pleasing tones of sky blue and slate gray. Red-brick homes boasted wide double-door garages and gabled roofs. The windows sparkled in the afternoon sun.
Hagen bent over the steering wheel and looked up at the elms lining the street. “It’s nice here.”
“Yeah. Good to know that a cop’s widow is well-looked after these days. My mom struggled for a while.”
“She’s okay now?”
“Yeah, I guess. She got worse after my brother died, of course, but she’s got her new life now down in Florida. I think she just needed a fresh start.”
“That’s a good option. If you can do it.” Hagen pointed to a charming, two-story, white-brick house with a well-maintained front yard. “There it is.”
He slid the Corvette to a stop a few houses down. Stella took a deep breath and slowed her breathing. The house looked entirely normal. The fence surrounding the property was clean and white. The frosted glass diamond in the custom oak door, and the American flag flapping in the wind beside it, was welcoming. This was a place where families lived, where they went about their lives. And, yet, this was where she would walk back into her father’s life.
She swallowed hard, trying to keep her nerves from choking her.
Hagen turned off the engine. “Take your time. We can sit here ’til you’re ready.”
With a stomach as tight as a taut rubber band, Stella considered her options. She was sure she’d know what to do by now. She’d just walk up to the house, and the right words would come to her automatically, as though they’d always been there, just waiting to be said. But now that she was here, she couldn’t have been less certain.
She twisted the stud in her ear, the one her father had given her when she turned fourteen. Waiting until she felt ready might mean sitting there for a very long time. And a red Corvette wasn’t the least conspicuous car to spy on someone’s house in.
Just do it.
“Okay. Let’s go.”
As Stella reached for the car door handle, the front door opened. She froze as a girl ran out. She couldn’t have been older than seven. Her brown hair was pulled back into a neat ponytail, and her pink top was emblazoned with a rainbow-colored unicorn.
Hagen glanced at the GPS. “You sure you got the right address?”
Stella’s heart raced. A tremble passed through her. The floor seemed to fall out of the car, dropping her into a dark, cavernous pit.
A man followed the girl out of the house, about mid-sixties, with a gray comb-over that did little to hide his scalp. His belly extended a good way past the top of his chinos. His small nose turned up at the bottom, and his cheeks were loose and florid. He waved at someone inside the house, took the girl’s hand, and made his way down the front yard to the street.
When Stella was growing up, his hair had just been starting to thin. His belly had been tight, with no bulge. The nose was the same. His jawline, despite his now-sagging cheeks, was the same.
Stella’s gaze was fixed. When Uncle Joel died—when she thought he’d died—she’d wished she could see him one more time. She regretted not asking more questions, not taking the chance to know him better or know her father better through him.
Uncle Joel was part of a long line of ghosts she never expected to see again. Once you were dead, you generally stayed dead. That was it.
The rubber band in her stomach snapped, sending a sting in every direction.
Because the dead lived.
“That’s Uncle Joel.”
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