Stella Knox Series: Book Eight
Sometimes you win, and sometimes you die.On the verge of finding the person who ordered their fathers’ deaths, Special Agents Stella Knox and Hagen Yates are diverted by another murder. A kickboxer whose body is discovered with two bullet holes in his head. Stranger still is a pattern of dead boxers around the state.
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Lonnie Maguire blinked away the sweat dripping into his eyes and balanced his weight, concentrating on his next move. He lifted his elbow to shoulder height and twisted his hips, gathering as much power as he could. His fist whipped around in a short arc.
His left hook landed hard, smacking into the side of the punching bag. He followed that up with a quick combination, landing a right hook, then another left before leaning back, rotating his base foot, and swinging his shin into the middle of the bag. A masterful roundhouse. His leather opponent rolled in circles, dizzied by the vicious attack.
Lonnie bounced on his toes, ready to go again.
That was a perfect kickboxing combo, delivered with speed and power. It would’ve floored any human opponent and brought a crowd to its feet. Just a shame there were so few people around to see his achievement.
The Hard Diamond Gym was almost empty at nine thirty on a Saturday night. The sparring ring in the middle of the room was bare.
Some new kid with arms like matchsticks tried to skip rope by the wall but kept losing his rhythm after five or so cycles of the rope. Lonnie remembered those days, feeling uncoordinated and awkward. He didn’t miss them.
Lonnie’s coach, Toby Azaria, sat at the table in the far corner that served as his “office.” He scowled at the screen of a computer almost old enough to run on steam.
There was no one else here.
Apparently, the other guys had places—better places—to be. They didn’t want to hang out in a gym where bare patches pockmarked the linoleum floor. The brickwork flaked off in wide chunks every time someone brushed a shoulder against the wall. Only half the fluorescent tubes hanging from the high ceiling worked. Whatever breeze the wheezing air conditioner managed to cough into the room disappeared through the holes in the high, broken windowpanes before cooling any gym goers.
Lonnie’s friends were out partying or sitting on a stoop somewhere, drinking hard with their pals or passing a joint.
Not him. Not Lonnie Maguire. He was going places. He was going to take on the world and win. Knock ’em all out. Every single one of them. No way would he ever waste training time on booze or drugs.
World Championship, here I come.
A few more fights, and he’d be ready to go pro. He’d work his way up, win a belt or two. A world championship, a defense, and another. Wouldn’t be long before he’d be set for life. Then he and his girlfriend and their little boy could just relax. Rosa and Kev meant the world to him.
He only had to keep putting in the work. Sacrifice today and take home the reward tomorrow. Discipline. That was key. Nothing good came without strong discipline, dedication, and commitment.
He landed a couple of quick jabs on the punching bag, then tested a slow rear kick just to check his balance. Not that he needed to train hard for his next fight—a rematch against Damien Pereira from Round12.
Their last fight had been a doozie. Two good right jabs to the face, then a single high kick to the side of the head that sent the kid sprawling on the mat. A third-round knockout, leading Lonnie to believe Damien had to love the taste of his glove in that filthy mouth of his to put up with the humiliation that came with the defeat.
Lonnie was even a little disappointed when the referee finished the count. He’d hoped to get in a few more blows before the fight ended. The little shit deserved every smack he got for the things he’d said before the fight.
And now, Pereira wanted a rematch. Hell, he’d insisted on the thing. What an idiot. There must’ve been dozens of other kickboxers lining up to beat the crap out of Pereira. He’d never stood a chance against Lonnie, and he’d stand even less of a chance now.
Lonnie threw two quick jabs to his imaginary opponent’s chin. He rocked back and slung a high kick that would’ve connected with Pereira’s temple and damn near taken his head off.
The scrawny kid tripped over his skipping rope, drawing Lonnie’s attention. Stupid kid. But at least he was in the gym. At least he was trying. And he was watching with wide eyes as Lonnie brought his foot down and dropped into his fighting stance again.
Lonnie danced on his toes, fists raised, and gave his audience a little shimmy. Audiences always loved that. The kid smiled and waved his rope.
A towel came flying out of nowhere, hit the punching bag, and slid to the floor at Lonnie’s toes.
Lonnie turned to see Toby push his chair away from his office table and stretch his arms behind his head. “That’s enough for today, kid. You’re making me tired just watching you. Go take a shower and hit the massage table. I’ll be there in a minute.”
Lonnie picked up the towel, wiped his face, and slung it over his shoulder. As he headed to the shower, he thought about what Toby had called him.
At thirty-one, Toby was less than a decade older than Lonnie. Though, in many ways, he’d lived a lifetime longer.
Toby had been running drugs for local dealers when he was barely old enough to ride a bike. He’d picked up three small face tattoos before his first stint in prison, then a bigger one by the time he’d come out, a crude dragon that curled around his right ear with a tail that ran along his jawbone.
If Toby had ever wanted a public-facing job, he’d have been in trouble. But Lonnie knew that all Toby wanted after his last stint in the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution was to set up something that gave local youths an outlet for their aggression and kept them, and him, on the straight and narrow.
Lonnie respected the shit out of him for that. He wasn’t the only one.
Everyone in the streets around the gym in Heron Walk, Nashville’s high crime neighborhood, trusted and respected Toby. And the few who didn’t learned to fear him.
Still, calling Lonnie a kid didn’t sit well. Lonnie might not have done time like Toby or almost killed a man for trying to steal his stash, but he was a breadwinner, a father, and a guy who was going places.
He was no kid.
He showered quickly in lukewarm water, the best the gym’s old boiler could manage, then planted himself facedown on the massage table in the changing room.
This was his favorite part of the training. As soon as he stretched out, his muscles relaxed, and his eyes closed. Toby would come in soon, already yapping from halfway down the corridor about how kids these days were so much smarter than they were in his time and so much easier to keep out of trouble. Toby was always so optimistic. His hope was contagious.
Lonnie’s phone rang. He smiled. He knew what this was about.
Holding the device in front of his face, he took the video call.
There was Kev’s little round face, gleaming on the screen. Comb marks scored his wet black hair. Nothing about Lonnie’s boy had been planned, and no one—neither their parents nor any of their friends—had expected his relationship with Rosa to last.
And yet, here they were, four years later, going strong. The best things in life took time, effort, and hard work. But sometimes, dumb luck played a part. With Rosa, it was a little of everything that held them together.
“Hi, Daddy.” Kev’s voice was high and energetic. “I’m going to bed now.”
A twinge of guilt pinched Lonnie between the ribs. He’d missed too many bedtimes and too many afternoons in the park with his son. But he’d make them up one day. Kickboxing wasn’t a career he could do all his life. And when he was a little older, his boy would understand his dedication, and he’d realize that to be the best, you had to make sacrifices. That was a lesson worth teaching.
“You sleep tight now, ’kay? Kiss your mama for me.”
Kev waved and ran away from the screen as Rosa’s face appeared. “You on your way back?”
“Be there in half an hour. A quick massage and I’m done.”
Rosa smiled. She glanced behind her, then turned back to the lens and lowered her voice, her black curls falling seductively over one eye. “Good, then you’ll be all relaxed and warmed up. And when you get back, you can give me a massage, huh?” She winked and disconnected the call.
Lonnie dropped the phone onto the table and rested his head on his arms. By the time he got back, Kev would be fast asleep, and Rosa would be waiting. This was turning into a very good Saturday night.
Now, where’s Toby?
He closed his eyes and rolled his shoulders. He should’ve swiveled faster when he hit that punching bag. His arm had taken too much of the strain. Toby would fix that.
Footsteps sounded in the corridor. Lonnie smiled.
There he is.
The door creaked open. Lonnie exhaled, relaxing further. “Start with the left shoulder, man. Think I might’ve popped something there.”
Nothing happened. Toby’s footsteps didn’t draw nearer the table, and he wasn’t excitedly talking about some kid he’d just warned off weed. His fingers didn’t jam into the spaces between Lonnie’s muscles or start maneuvering his joints.
Lonnie’s chest tightened. Something was off.
He propped himself on one elbow and opened his eyes. “What’s—”
The man standing in the doorway wasn’t Toby. A hood pushed the man’s baseball cap low over his face, but there was no sign of the dragon’s tail snaking across this guy’s jawbone, and he was more heavyset than Toby. As an ex-felon, Toby couldn’t own a gun.
The muzzle, hidden behind a suppressor, pointed directly at Lonnie’s forehead.
Kev’s face flashed in front of Lonnie’s eyes. No. This couldn’t be happening.
“Hey now, what…what’s goin’ on?”
The man’s face—what he could see of it—was an expressionless mask. That, more than anything, sent a spurt of adrenaline through the fighter.
“Sorry, son.” His voice was a quiet growl. “Ain’t nothin’ personal. Not for me, anyhow.”
“Don’t do this.” Lonnie pushed up from the table, but he’d never felt slower in his life.
The man squinted down the sights.
A dozen different options flashed through Lonnie’s mind simultaneously. A right hook. A high kick. A lead uppercut. A combination of high and low punches and kicks. They’d all put this guy down. But Lonnie would never be able to deliver any of them, not before the man squeezed the trigger. A tear rolled down his cheek, the only tear he’d shed since the first time he’d held Kev.
He raised his hands up like a shield. “No. Please…”
There was a flash of light, a quiet ka-chunk, and a blow that struck Lonnie’s head harder than any kick he’d ever taken.
FBI Special Agent Stella Knox couldn’t believe it. Today was Sunday, and she hadn’t had a day off in…she didn’t know how long. Besides, this was terrible timing.
She was already late.
“I know, and I’m sorry to wake you. But like I said, a friend discovered a body at his gym.” Special Agent Chloe Foster was insistent, her tone even more clipped than usual.
Stella stared at her front door, the one she’d been about to exit only moments before, but for very different reasons. She needed to get to Memphis. She didn’t have time for a new case when she had her own vital business to follow through on.
Why the hell did I let myself fall asleep?
She knew why. She’d been exhausted…and a little tipsy.
She remembered it so clearly. Stella had let her head hit the pillow with a promise to only shut her eyes for “a few minutes.” Five hours later, she was pissed off and scrambling.
And now this?
She needed to get going. Hagen, with his Corvette and his heavy foot, was probably already in Memphis. A police case wasn’t going to stop her from joining him.
“Chloe, a body in a gym isn’t our jurisdiction, is it? If you want, I’ll connect you with Dan Garcia. He can keep you updated, and you can keep your friend in the loop.”
Detective Dan Garcia was Stella’s former partner in the Nashville Police Department. He’d helped her out in their last case, and Stella was sure that if this dropped into his precinct, he’d be happy to keep Chloe informed.
Chloe didn’t sound convinced. “No offence to your pal, but the cops aren’t going to get anywhere with this. The body was found in a kickboxing gym. The victim’s a fighter. That world is closed tighter than a padlocked clam.”
Stella headed toward the door. “Yeah, but this has nothing to do with us. Listen, I’m about to—”
“It’s going to be something to do with us. I’ve got an in. I’m about to talk to Slade about sending this case our way.”
Stella stopped. Chloe rarely fished for cases. Especially not first thing on a Sunday morning. “What’s your in?”
There was silence for a moment. “I’ll…I’ll explain later.”
“Something you want to tell me?”
“No.” Chloe sounded irritated. “Guess I’ll have to, though. If I’m making my business everyone else’s. When we get to the office.”
Stella sighed. Chloe did like to play her cards close to the chest. Of everyone on the team, she was probably the most private. “So you’re calling everyone first thing on Sunday morning to tell them you’re about to ruin their weekend?”
“No. Just you.” Chloe blew out a long breath. “I just figured after Hagen got all trigger-happy again, you might have been about to…head out of town. Follow up on your dad’s case. Thought I should let you know. Slade is probably going to call you soon. This is just a heads-up.”
Chloe was always sharp, but she sometimes forgot how deeply she could cut.
“Right.” Stella opened the door. “Then do me a favor. Call Hagen and tell him to get to the office too.”
As Stella drove to the Nashville Field Agency, one question gnawed at her brain.
She and Special Agent Hagen Yates were more than colleagues. They’d become close friends, united by their shared history. Both had lost fathers to an unidentified leader of a Memphis organized crime ring. At least, that was what they both strongly believed.
Hagen’s dad, Seth Yates, had been a lawyer, gunned down on the courthouse steps.
Stella’s father, Keith Knox, had been a police sergeant whose death had been orchestrated by corrupt fellow officers.
Now, fourteen years later, if their theory held true, Hagen and Stella were closer than ever to finding the person who’d ordered their fathers’ deaths.
Cyber expert and fellow Special Agent Mackenzie “Mac” Drake had tracked down Sergeant Keith Knox’s former partner, Joel Ramirez. Until very recently, Stella had thought of him as “Uncle Joel.” He’d died soon after her father. At least, Stella had thought he was dead. Instead, Joel was living in witness protection in Atlanta as Matthew Johnson, or possibly under another alias.
If all this wasn’t earth-shattering enough, an anonymous source had recently warned Stella she was being followed. This source also told her to watch out for Hagen. Her partner was dangerous, the informant said.
Stella wasn’t sure how seriously to take this warning.
She and Hagen wanted different things from their investigation. Stella wanted justice for her father. She wanted to catch the man who’d ordered his killing, charge him, and see him sent down for the rest of his life. Hagen, however, wanted something else.
He wanted the satisfaction of seeing something very bad happen to someone who had done something very bad to him.
And he wanted to be the person to deliver that vengeance.
Stella understood Hagen’s desire. She felt that urge, too, sometimes. Anytime she remembered her father reading a story or wrestling with her brother or tossing her over his head, she wanted retribution in the worst way. In those moments, she fantasized about finding the murderer and throttling the bastard with her own bare hands.
But she was a law enforcement officer. There was a system for handling people like him. Bringing the guilty party to justice was the right thing to do.
Tapping the steering wheel with her thumb, Stella noticed a small scrape on the side of her hand. That must have happened last night, when she’d protected a killer from an accidental discharge from Hagen’s gun.
There had been nothing accidental about it, despite what Hagen claimed.
Stella didn’t entirely blame him.
The killer had kidnapped Hagen’s sister. They’d found Brianna just in time, trussed up on the floor with the murderer—the killer piano player’s daughter, no less—raising an axe, ready to deliver a final blow.
Once Hagen had made sure his sister was okay, he’d drawn his weapon, even though the killer had already surrendered. His gun went off just as their new colleague, Stacy Lark, tackled Hagen, pinning his arm to the wall.
Now, thanks to Mac’s cyber-sleuthing abilities, they both had the address of the informant. Alex Handley, the source who’d called Stella, claimed to know who’d given the order to kill her father. If Hagen got there before she did…
She didn’t want to think what he would do.
Stella yawned so hard her eyes watered. Damn, she was tired.
Was he already in Memphis? Was he knocking down a door? Pulling his gun?
She was supposed to trust Hagen, and yet she was scared to death of what he’d do if he reached the informant before her. Fine partners they made.
“Just be careful, Stella Knox. Be real careful.” Goose bumps raised on Stella’s arms as she remembered the informant’s raspy words. “And you need to keep an eye on that Hagen Yates. You watch him real close, now.”
She needed to find him first.
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