Stella Knox Series: Book Nine
The cost of fame is paid in blood...It’s been an eventful twenty-four hours for FBI Special Agent Stella Knox. She’s saved her colleague from a murderer, rescued the same murderer, and watched the man who killed her father plummet to his death. Now, she’s not only tormented with questions about her father's murder, but new worries about her colleague and friend, Special Agent Hagen Yates, are plaguing her too.
read an excerpt
June Miller stirred the remains of her cosmopolitan and rested her chin on the heel of her hand, sighing with deep contentment. She loved this place. The Tulip Bar was friendly without being too familiar. The wooden beams hinted at tradition and family warmth, and the country music was a nice hybrid of classic and current without being too loud.
She slipped the end of the stirrer into her mouth and winced at the last of the drink’s sourness. The bartender always did put too much lime in his cosmos, but June was in far too happy a mood to mind.
At the surrounding tables, couples and groups sat and talked, cooing and laughing and enjoying their Saturday night out. June was sure that none of them, not even the couple in the corner gazing into each other’s eyes with all the intensity of new lovers, were as happy as she was.
She and Hank had been together a year, and she hadn’t known a relationship could be so exciting yet so easy. He was tall and handsome with a strong jaw and blue eyes. A lock of curly brown hair above his left eyebrow was always just slightly out of place, so that every time she saw him, she wanted to reach over and flick it out of the way to tidy him up. But she knew the lock would just fall again, and he’d leave it there, as though he were far too busy to care about silly things like the perfection of his appearance. A guy who looked as good as Hank didn’t need to make much effort.
And besides, he was always more interested in how she looked. Before every date, he greeted her with a compliment. He noticed when she wore a new blouse or changed her hairstyle even slightly. When she talked, he listened, and when he spoke, he opened up and made himself vulnerable. He made her feel she was the only one he really talked to, the only person he trusted enough to be himself around.
Her heart picked up speed when she spotted him at the bar, ordering a couple more drinks for them. His lumberjack shirt clung to his broad shoulders. His booted foot rested on the bottom of an empty barstool, making his dark-blue jeans stretch over his muscular thigh. He looked back at her and smiled. His teeth almost gleamed in the light, and his skin boasted an appealing warm hue, reflecting off the bottles behind the bar.
June’s cheeks flushed, and her stomach twisted. Hank could still make her blush as he did on their first date, still excite her with just a smile.
She placed her stirrer on the table next to his phone. Hank was such a gentleman that he never peeked at his phone when he was with her. And leaving it behind was another indication of how trustworthy he was.
I love him. I want to spend the rest of my life with this man.
Surely, a year wasn’t too short to become engaged. Her parents had only known each other for three months when her dad bought a ring, and they were celebrating their thirtieth anniversary this year. At twenty-eight, June was ready.
If Hank were to come back from the bar right this second and get down on one knee, June was sure she’d explode with happiness. She wouldn’t be able to get the yes out quickly enough. She’d—
Hank’s phone pinged, and a notification flashed on the screen. June assumed it was one of Hank’s workers from the roofing company where he was a supervisor, or maybe one of his pals from the fire station where he volunteered. But she caught sight of the name just before the notification faded away.
Who the hell is that?
She glanced toward the bar. Hank was still there, talking to the bartender as he waited for his draft beer. He had his back to her. She spun the phone around. The screen was still on. The lock hadn’t kicked back in since Hank’s last text before he left the table.
June pulled down the notification panel.
I thought we had a date tonight???
June’s stomach clenched. A sour taste rose in the back of her throat, more acidic than a barrel of grapefruit juice. She grabbed the phone, dropped it into her lap, and pulled up Hank’s messages.
There they were. Woman after woman.
Four women in the last three months alone.
Harmony. Kate. Helen. Melissa.
Text after text.
Picture after picture.
Her own name was interspersed among the chats about dates and times and at least one photo Melissa’s mother would be ashamed her daughter was sharing.
She should have known Hank was too good to be true. Things this great just didn’t happen to her.
June wanted to burst into tears. She wanted to slam the table into the floorground, throw her chair against the wall, scream, curl into a ball, and die.
A shadow fell over the table. “Here’s your cosmo, darlin’.”
Hank pushed the bubblegum-pink liquid across the table and sat opposite her. He flashed that big smile as June lifted her gaze from his phone.
“Who’s Harmony?” The bitterness in her voice was sharper than a lemon seed.
Hank’s jaw dropped. He recovered quickly, smiling again as though a set of straight, bleached chompers was all he needed to keep the world running his way. “Who? Harmony? I don’t know any…”
His gaze dropped to the empty spot where his phone had rested. “Now just a—”
“And Kate? And what about Helen? And Melissa? Who are these girls? And why did they have such a good time with you on those nights you told me you were training with the fire service, huh?”
Hank’s mouth moved, opening and closing without making a sound. After mimicking a fish for nearly ten seconds, he beamed his toothy grin again. “Now, darlin’, you know I’d never do anything…”
But June was no longer listening. She understood, and the sharp bitterness that had stabbed into her chest at the sight of the texts had spread through her and hardened until it was like obsidian, black and impenetrable.
She stood and dropped his phone into his fishbowl beer goblet. It sank to the bottom, spilling liquid over the sides.
Hank jammed his hand into the glass. “Are you crazy?” Beer poured over the edge of the goblet and soaked his blue jeans.
June lifted her cocktail glass and emptied her cosmopolitan over Hank’s head, soaking his hair and sticking that out-of-place curl flat to his forehead.
A minute later, she was out the door, across the parking lot, and standing on the steel suspension bridge outside the bar, bawling her eyes out.
Her arm rested on the ice-cold metal parapet, her face buried inside her elbow. Mascara left dark smudges on her forearm. Beneath her, traffic flowed down Route 70, the cars’ occupants heading for the highway toward Memphis. Her tears slid down her cheeks and onto the girder before falling to the road below.
“Aw, sweetie, look at you. You’re getting your makeup all mussed up.”
June lifted her head and found a hand extended toward her, the fingertips gripping a cotton handkerchief with neat, embroidered edges. A woman stood at June’s side. She was older than June but had put a great deal of effort into looking much younger.
Her arms were bare, but her white dress flowed from her neck past her flat stomach to hug her hips, and it ended just below the tops of her cowboy boots. Her hair had been curled, left to fall wildly over her shoulders. Despite the late hour, a pair of oversize sunglasses sat on the top of her head. Something about her was familiar.
She pushed the handkerchief into June’s hand. “You go ahead and take that, sweetie. Clean yourself up. He don’t deserve to make you look anything but your best.”
Though thinking it a strange thing for a woman who couldn’t have been over forty to possess, June took the handkerchief. The woman was right. June had spent half an hour in front of the mirror that evening, applying her makeup and blow-drying her hair. But she hadn’t done it all for Hank, and there was no reason he should make her look like a scarecrow.
If that no-good, cheating lowlife was coming out of the bar now, he should see her at her best. And the idiot should know what he’d lost. She dabbed at her eyes and tried to ignore the stab in her gut as she remembered that all her dreams of love and marriage had melted away like ice on hot asphalt. What was left was a cold numbness that gnawed at her insides.
The stranger rested an elbow on the bridge’s wide parapet.
“How do you know why I’m crying?”
“I saw what happened in there. I saw what you did, and I have a good idea why.” She leaned closer, fingertips resting on the back of June’s hand. “Sometimes it helps to talk to a stranger.”
A surprising smile rose on June’s face, as there was little to be happy about. A moment ago, she’d been utterly alone, her future lost, betrayed by the man she thought was her best friend. She’d felt such a fool, pathetic and naive. And like a miracle, a sympathetic ear, a person who understood and wanted to listen, had appeared.
June dabbed at her eyes again. Her mascara had left charcoal smudges all over the handkerchief. She sniffed as she offered it back to the woman. “I’m sorry. It’s dirty now.”
She pressed the handkerchief back into June’s hands. “Aw, you keep it. I’ve got plenty more. You just tell me what happened. Let it all out. You’ll feel so much better afterward. I guarantee.”
June tucked the handkerchief into her handbag and closed the clasp. “I thought…I really thought he was the one, you know. The guy I was supposed to marry. I thought I was…the luckiest girl in the world.”
She closed her eyes, unwilling to believe how stupid she’d been.
The woman rubbed the back of June’s wrist with her thumb. “I know, sweetie. I know.”
The tears resurfaced as June told the story. “And then I saw all those other girls. Harmony and Kate and Helen and Melissa and…” She shook her head. It was just too much to even think about.
“It’ll be okay,” the stranger said, pulling June into her shoulder. She lowered her face to the top of June’s head, and only then did June realize that she wasn’t alone in her sorrow. The woman was crying with her.
There was no judgment. Just heartfelt sympathy from one woman to another, from a human being who understood—who must’ve gone through the same thing, felt heartbreak, and learned the heart was fragile. Someone who knew it could always break again.
June wrapped her arms around the stranger and held on.
Tremors shook June’s whole body, but the other woman hugged her tight, steadying her. “You just forget all about Harmony and Kate and Helen and Melissa.” Each woman’s name left her new friend’s mouth in different tempos and pitches. Her voice was so familiar.
June unwrapped herself from the woman and looked into her eyes, hoping to convey her deep sense of gratitude. “Thank you.”
The woman wiped a tear from June’s cheek. “Oh, sweetie. Thank you.”
As the last word left her mouth, she crouched down. Had she dropped something? Confused, June blinked away tears and shifted her foot to help her search. But the woman’s arms wrapped around June’s knees.
Off-balance, June tried to free herself, to pull the woman’s arms away. But she rose, taking June with her.
The world tilted as the edge of the steel parapet slipped past her chest, her hips, her thighs, until, still scrabbling against the woman’s grip, June tipped over the bridge.
For a sickening second, June felt frozen in midair. Her stomach jumped into her throat, like she was plunging down a roller coaster.
She watched the bridge shrink away, not fully realizing what was happening.
Air rushed around her. Car horns blasted as she fell toward headlights…or maybe the headlights were flying up to meet her?
She tried to scream. But before she could find her voice, the lights all disappeared.
A fire escape. An old man hanging over the edge.
Hagen holding onto the man by one arm.
How is this happening again?
Stella opened her mouth to call out, but before she could speak, before she could shout, before she could even breathe in, the old man slipped through Hagen’s fingers.
He dropped past one floor, then another, and another, gaining speed, becoming the only thing moving on Earth.
Until his feet hit the concrete.
His knees bent, his body fell sideways, and his head smacked into the ground, his skull breaking open like a melon. Blood and brains splashed along the concrete, sending red dots to decorate the cuffs of Stella’s pants.
Slowly, she lifted her gaze from the mess on the ground. Hagen bent over the railing of the fire escape. One arm still hung low.
His eyes met Stella’s, and for a moment, Stella had no idea who she was seeing.
This wasn’t the Hagen she’d worked with and trusted.
This wasn’t the Hagen who’d saved her life and the lives of others.
This wasn’t the Hagen with a charming smile, a funny dog, or a loving family.
She didn’t know this man at all.
FBI Special Agent Stella Knox willed herself to move.
But her feet felt like slabs of concrete.
Donald Monahon, the man who’d killed her father, was sprawled on the ground only a few feet from her. His blood was on her pants.
I’m too late.
All Stella ever wanted was justice. From the moment she learned corrupt cops had taken down her father, she’d wanted nothing else than to bring in the ringleader and see him locked away.
Special Agent Hagen Yates, her FBI colleague and friend, wanted something else. Vengeance.
Looks like he got it.
His father, defense attorney Seth Yates, had been gunned down on the courthouse steps by the same criminal ring. The police had never caught the leader who’d given the kill orders.
Even though she understood Hagen’s anger, Stella had been sure when the time came, he’d act professionally. Do the right thing.
Make the arrest.
Her gut twisted at how wrong she had been. She willed herself to move faster.
“Stella! He slipped. That’s Monahon. I couldn’t…but he said…”
She barely registered Hagen struggling to get the words out.
“It’s Joel,” Hagen finally shouted from Monahon’s balcony. “Joel’s the one we need.”
Her brain felt as slow as her feet. Stella tried to make sense of the situation in simple terms.
She was in Memphis.
She stood outside Donald Monahon’s apartment building.
She’d received the address from a formerly corrupt Memphis cop—Alex Handley.
Hagen had gotten the same information from Handley, and he’d beaten her here.
“Stella! Listen to me. It was an accident. But he talked. Monahon talked. We have to get to Joel Ramirez.”
Joel Ramirez. The name penetrated the thick fog enveloping her senses.
When she was growing up, she’d thought of him as Uncle Joel. Ramirez was a Memphis police officer and her father’s partner. Keith Knox had trusted Ramirez with his life. But Knox had been shot during a drug bust.
Ramirez supposedly died soon after but not before telling Stella corrupt cops were responsible for her dad’s death. Turned out, Ramirez was alive and in witness protection in Atlanta. He’d been an undercover officer sent to infiltrate Memphis’s corrupt force.
And Hagen kept shouting his name. “Joel! It’s Joel, Stella! He did it.”
But Joel didn’t make sense. Her brain felt goopy.
Handley had told her that Monahon had fired the shot.
When Stella arrived at Monahon’s address, she’d found Hagen holding onto an old man as he dangled over the edge of the fifth-floor fire escape.
Move, dammit. Move!
Stella dragged herself through air that seemed thicker than syrup. One pace, then two, three, then four, until she halted beside the body. A bloody puddle soaked into Monahon’s dressing gown. The man’s face was sheet-white, and his eyes were vacant. As she stepped around a puddle of his blood and knelt next to him, she could see the open skull and the pink remains on the sidewalk. She knew for certain he was dead.
Whatever sliver of hope she’d carried with her melted. He wasn’t moving, and he wasn’t breathing.
There was nothing to be done.
A voice came from above her. Hagen’s voice, shouting still. “Stella! I’m sorry! But did you hear me? We have to get to Joel.”
Stella didn’t want to listen. She didn’t want to think about Joel Ramirez, and she didn’t want to hear another damn word from Hagen’s mouth. Not now. And maybe not ever. A dead man was on the ground in front of her, a man he’d dropped from the fifth floor.
Hagen had to have dropped Monahon. Just hours before, she’d grabbed a man who’d fallen off a rooftop. Even with her arm in a cast, she’d managed to pull the man back, saving him from a forty-five-story fall.
She should’ve been angry or horrified or even just coolly professional. But instead, Stella was smothered by a deep, numbing disappointment.
A crowd was forming at the entrance to the alley. Someone shouted about how they’d called the police. Someone else said an ambulance was on its way.
Stella pulled out her FBI badge and held it at arm’s length toward the crowd.
“FBI. Keep back.”
The crowd remained on the street. They didn’t step back, but they didn’t draw closer either.
Hagen’s voice called again from directly above her. He leaned over the edge of the fire escape, standing exactly where he’d stood when Monahon had fallen.
But she didn’t want to reply. She’d seen what’d happened. Monahon had hung from Hagen’s hand. He’d held the old man over the fire escape, and he’d let Monahon go. There was no other explanation. Hagen had dropped the old man to his death.
He’d made clear more than once he didn’t trust the judicial system to do its job—sworn that he knew how a smart attorney could find any loophole to keep even the worst killers out of jail. If you want justice done, you have to do it yourself. That was what Hagen believed. He’d told her enough times. She hadn’t listened. She’d preferred to believe he’d never go that far, that he’d pull back before the end.
But now he’d found the man he thought had killed his father. And that man was dead.
His words fell from the fifth floor and crashed onto the pavement beside Monahon. They didn’t matter. Joel Ramirez, now Matthew Johnson as far as they knew, was in WITSEC, guarded by the state because he’d helped law enforcement. He couldn’t possibly be the man they were looking for. Their guy was right there, his head in one place and much of his brain in another.
A siren sounded from behind the crowd, and a police car screeched to a halt. An ambulance drew up on the other side of the road.
Whatever Hagen had to say about Joel Ramirez would have to wait.
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