The Stolen Ones by Owen Laukkanen

The Stolen Ones

byOwen Laukkanen

Hardcover | March 17, 2015

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The blistering new novel from the author of the multi-award-nominated The Professionals—“Laukkanen is one of the best young thriller writers working today” (Richmond Times-Dispatch).
 
When you’ve got nothing left, you’ve got nothing left to lose.

Cass County, Minnesota: A sheriff’s deputy steps out of a diner on a rainy summer evening, and a few minutes later, he’s lying dead in the mud. When BCA agent Kirk Stevens arrives on the scene, he discovers local authorities have taken into custody a single suspect: A hysterical young woman found sitting by the body, holding the deputy’s own gun. She has no ID, speaks no English. A mystery woman.

The mystery only deepens from there, as Stevens and Carla Windermere, his partner in the new joint BCA–FBI violent crime task force, find themselves on the trail of a massive international kidnapping and prostitution operation. Before the two agents are done, they will have traveled over half the country, from Montana to New York, and come face-to-face not only with the most vicious man either of them has ever encountered—but two of the most courageous women.

They are sisters, stolen ones. But just because you’re a victim doesn’t mean you have to stay one.

About The Author

Owen Laukkanen’s first novel, The Professionals, was nominated for the Anthony Award, the Barry Award, Spinetingler Magazine’s Best Novel: New Voices Award, and the International Thriller Writers’ Thriller Award for best first novel. He is a resident of Vancouver.
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Title:The Stolen OnesFormat:HardcoverDimensions:368 pages, 9.25 × 6.25 × 1.25 inPublished:March 17, 2015Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0399165533

ISBN - 13:9780399165535

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1 Only her sister kept her alive. The box was dark and stank of shit. Sweat. Urine. Misery. Irina Milosovici had lost track of how long she’d been inside. How long since Mike, the charming American, had disappeared with her passport in Bucharest. Since the two stone-faced thugs had shoved her into the box with the rest of the women, maybe forty of them. And Catalina. Irina had lost count of how many days they’d spent in the pitch- black and silence, sharing stale air and meager rations behind the shipping container’s false wall. How many times they’d clawed at the steel that surrounded them, screamed themselves hoarse, as the box lurched and jostled on its terrible, claustrophobic, suffocating journey. Only Catalina kept her alive. Only her younger sister’s warmth pressed against her in the darkness staved off the fear and, above all, the empty, sickening guilt. They were in america now. For days the box had swayed with the lazy rhythm of the ocean, had shuddered with the ever- present vibrations of a big engine somewhere far below. Some of the women had been seasick, and the smell of vomit filled the box, mixing with the foul stench from the overflowing waste bucket in the corner. Irina had passed the time telling Catalina stories. “This is the only way into the country for us,” she told her. “When we arrive in America, they’ll give us showers and new clothes and find us all jobs.” Catalina pressed tight to her in the darkness, said nothing, and Irina wondered if her lies were any comfort at all. Then the waves calmed. The pitch of the engine slowed. The box seemed less dark, the air slightly fresher. The women screamed again, all of them, pleading for help as the box was lifted from the ship, the lurching of the crane sending them tumbling into one another, momentarily weightless. The box touched down again. Irina could hear a truck’s engine, and the box rumbled and shook along an uneven road for a short while, maybe fifteen minutes. Then the movement stopped and the engine cut off. A door opened in the container’s false wall. The light was blinding. The women blinked and drew back, shielding their faces. Irina pulled Catalina to the rear of the box, far away from the light and whatever waited beyond. Two men appeared in the open doorway, big men, their heads shaved nearly to the skin. One had a long, jagged scar across his forehead. The other held a powerful-looking hose. “Get these bitches out of here,” he told his partner in English. “What did he say?” Catalina whispered, and for a moment Irina was angry. Her sister’s English was no good. What on earth had possessed Catalina to follow her here? But then Catalina had always been running to keep up with her older sister, and Irina had baited the hook. She was as guilty as the traffickers, she knew. The men dragged the women out in pairs, past the stacks of cardboard boxes holding DVD players and cheap electric razors, until the container was empty and the women stood disheveled and weak in the harsh sunlight. They were in a shipping yard. Irina could smell the ocean nearby, but the stacks of rusted shipping containers prevented her from seeing anything but the box and the two thugs. The men sprayed out the inside of the false compartment. They dumped the waste bucket out onto the gravel and sprayed it clean also. Then they turned the hose on the women. The water was cold, even in the warm summer air. Catalina’s fingers dug into Irina’s skin when the water hit her, spurring her on, tempting her to run. She didn’t run, though. She withstood the spray, coughing and sputtering, and then the hose was turned off, and they stood shivering in the yard again. The thugs began to maneuver the women back into the box. They took one girl aside, a pretty young blonde about Catalina’s age. Then the scar-faced man saw Catalina, and beckoned to his partner. “Her, too,” he said. Irina felt suddenly desperate. “No,” she said. “Get away from her.” The scar-faced man reached around her, grabbed at Catalina. Irina blocked his way, ready to fight. To claw at him, to hurt him. She would die before she let her sister go. But the thug didn’t try to kill her. He studied her for a moment. “Whatever,” he said finally, and moved on down the row of women. “The bitch is too old anyway.” He picked out another girl instead, a black-haired girl even younger than Catalina. Dragged her away from the container, the young blond girl, too, and then the scar-faced man’s partner was herding Irina and Catalina back into the box with the rest of the women, confining them in the darkness again. The doors had opened twice since the day of the hose. Days passed in between. The box rumbled and lurched, and the girls heard traffic outside, cars and trucks. The box rarely stopped moving. Irina screamed for help, but no help ever came. The doors opened. The thugs peered in, spoke to each other quickly, unintelligibly, scanning the huddle of women. The man with the scar on his face climbed into the box and chose two girls at random. Another blonde, perhaps twenty, and a very young brunette. He dragged them out of the box by their hair, ignoring their screams, and came back for two more women, and then again, until he’d taken a total of ten. Then the doors closed and were locked, and the box resumed its journey. The next time the door opened, the scar-faced man took only two women. Irina clutched Catalina and fought with her sister to the rear of the box, desperate to avoid being chosen. She screwed her eyes tight, heard the screams from the unlucky ones, and only breathed again when the men sealed the compartment. The box rumbled onward. There was more space in the darkness now. The men had taken almost half of the women away. Sooner or later, they would come for the rest. They would come for Catalina. The men had been careless when they’d sealed the box. The lock on the compartment door had failed to engage properly; it rattled and shook with a promise that hadn’t existed before. Irina crossed the compartment and pushed at the door. Clawed at it. Punched it until it swung open to the mountains of cardboard and the rest of the container. Already the air seemed fresher. Here was opportunity. Let the men do what they wanted to her, but they would not get Catalina. She would get her sister home. “Come on,” she said, pulling Catalina to the doorway. “The next time they come for us, we’ll be ready.” 2 Cass county sheriff’s deputy Dale Friesen finished his coffee and stepped out through the front door of the Paul Bunyan Diner and into the waning light as another summer day met its end. He stood on the steps for a minute, savoring the still air, the mad rush of campers and city folk all but gone from the 200 highway just across the way, everyone now hunkered down in their tents and cabins, swatting mosquitoes and telling ghost stories and hoping the thunderheads in the distance veered south before nightfall. Friesen circled around the side of the diner to his Suburban, figuring he’d be happy if the road stayed dry just long enough for him to get back up to Walker, just long enough that he didn’t look like a drowned rat showing up at Suzi’s door with a bottle of wine after blowing off their big date day to go bass fishing. Shit but he was in trouble. As Friesen reached his Suburban, a big semitruck pulled into the lot, a nice Peterbilt towing a rusty red container. The guy pulled in and parked behind Friesen, the ass end of his truck hanging out into the driveway, and as the guy climbed out of the cab, Friesen called over to him. “You’re a little long for that spot,” he said, thinking, That’s what she said. “Gimme a sec and I’ll pull ahead.” The driver, a big guy with a shaved head and a face like he’d never smiled in his life, looked back down the length of his rig, then back at Friesen. “Yeah,” he said. “All right.” “Don’t get too many long haulers up here in lake country,” Friesen said. “Where you headed?” The driver glanced into the truck, and Friesen followed his gaze and saw the guy had a partner, another big, bald fella. This guy had a scar on his forehead like he’d lost a fight with a band saw. “Out of state.” The driver had an accent, some kind of European. “Going to I-94.” “I see you boys got the standard cab,” Friesen said. “No bunk in the trunk, so to speak. You want a decent motel recommendation? Town of Walker’s just up the road, about five miles or so. There’s a—” “We make Fargo tonight.” The driver shifted his weight. “Got a schedule.” Friesen grinned. “That’s a hundred twenty miles away,” he said. “Gonna storm, too. Chamber of commerce would hate me if I let you get away.” “Thanks.” The man’s voice was flat. “We’re making Fargo.” “All right.” Friesen gave it up. Something wasn’t meshing about these two jokers, but hell, the county didn’t pay him enough to play every hunch. Besides, it was his day off. He was turning back to the Suburban, the driver and his buddy more or less forgotten already, when he heard something out the back of the rig. Sounded like bang ing. “You hear that?” Friesen asked the driver. The driver shook his head. “I didn’t hear nothing.” Friesen studied the truck again. New tractor. No logos. No markings of any kind, except the USDOT registration number and an operator decal. Standard cab, like he’d noted. Meant no beds, no creature comforts. Had to be an original badass to be driving a truck like that in northern Minnesota, hundreds of miles from anywhere. “Where you guys coming from, anyway?” Friesen asked. The driver shifted his weight again, glanced back into the cab at his partner. “Duluth,” he said finally. “Look, buddy, I don’t have time for this—” “Deputy, actually.” Friesen showed the guy his identification. Kept his smile pasted on as he started toward the rear of the truck. “Look, humor me, would you? Maybe you got a stowaway back there. Couple of rats or something. What’s your cargo, anyway?” The driver hesitated a split second, then followed Friesen to the back of the rig. No markings on the container, just more old USDOT numbers. Ditto the chassis. New Jersey plates, though. “You guys sure are a long way from home,” Friesen said. “What’d you say you were carrying?” The driver just looked at him. “Electronics,” he said. Friesen felt his Spidey sense tingling. Slid his hand to his side, slow as he could, and snapped open the holster on his hip. Kept his eyes on the driver, kept his voice calm. “You wanna open her up for me?” The driver didn’t blink. “I think you need a warrant to open up my container.” “Heard something moving around in there,” Friesen said. “That’s probable cause. Now, you gonna make me phone this thing in, or can we just clear this up before the storm sets in?” As if for emphasis, thunder rumbled in the distance. The driver pursed his lips. Pulled a key ring from his pocket and fiddled with the back-door lock. That’s when things got crazy. As soon as the lock disengaged, the rear door swung open, knocking the driver backward. Friesen caught a glimpse of a wall of cardboard boxes, DVD players or something, and then a woman came flying out, grungy and wild-eyed, barely more than a girl, yelling something in some crazy foreign language as she launched herself through the open door. Friesen scrambled back, drawing his sidearm, hollering at the girl to slow down. The girl didn’t listen. Probably couldn’t even hear him. She knocked the driver to the ground as another girl appeared in the container doorway. Even younger. Just as dirty. What the hell was going on? Friesen holstered his gun and grabbed at the first girl, couldn’t hold her. She fought free of his arms and ran, bolted to the edge of the parking lot, and the woods that butted up against the back of the Paul Bunyan. The driver pulled himself off the ground. Made a run at the second girl, who’d dropped down to the dirt. Tackled her from behind as she ran after the first girl, wrenched her back toward the box. “Jesus.” Friesen had started after the first girl. Now he stopped. The second girl was screaming, fighting in the driver’s arms, crying and clawing. The driver picked her up like she was paper, dragged her back to the box, and Friesen just stood there and watched like the dumbest kid in class, his mind struggling to piece the whole scene together. The driver threw the younger girl into the container and scanned the lot for the older one. She’d disappeared into the forest somewhere, out of sight, and the driver hesitated for just a moment before he slammed the door closed, and locked it again. Finally, something triggered inside Friesen’s head. He drew his sidearm again. “Wait a minute,” he told the driver. “Just hold your damn horses.” The driver ignored him. Started across the parking lot, toward the girl in the forest. Friesen followed. Was about to reach out and grab the guy when he felt something behind him. It was the other guy from the truck. The guy with the scar, and he was holding a big goddamn gun. “Shit,” Friesen said. “What—” Then the guy pulled the trigger. 3 Irina ran into the woods as fast as her weak legs would carry her, into the underbrush, fallen trees, and tangles. Somewhere nearby, lightning flashed and thunder rolled. The first drops of rain began to fall. Catalina wasn’t behind her. The realization came suddenly, like hitting a brick wall at high speed. She was alone in the forest. Her sister was gone. Heart pounding, panic in her throat, Irina hurried back through the woods, toward the patch of parking lot, the truck. She was almost at the clearing when she heard the gunshots. Three fast shots, then silence. Voices—the thugs, arguing with each other. They sounded frustrated, their tones urgent. Irina heard doors slam, and the truck rumble to life. Irina forced her way through the last of the forest. Burst out onto the edge of the parking lot, where the big truck was pulling away from the restaurant, where the third man lay dead in the mud. There was no sign of her sister. The two thugs were leaving. They were leaving her here. And they were taking Catalina with them. Irina hurried across the lot to the third man’s body. He’d dropped his gun in the struggle with the thugs, and she picked it up, fumbled with it. Aimed it at the truck and fired. The truck didn’t slow. Irina fired until the gun was empty and the truck had disappeared. The men and Catalina were gone. It was raining now, steady. Thunder and lightning like an artillery barrage. Irina looked around the parking lot. Saw mud, forest, nothing that looked like home. She dropped the gun beside the dead man. Then she sat down next to him and cried. 4 “Please, dad, can we go somewhere with cell reception next year?” Kirk Stevens swapped an exasperated glance with his wife as, from inside the doorway of her tiny tent, his sixteen-year-old daughter stared at her new iPhone, searching in vain for a signal. “What do you need reception for?” Stevens said. “This is nature, Andrea. The storm’s passed. Come on out and help me build a fire.” Andrea swatted a mosquito and made a face. “It’s dark and muddy out there,” she said. “I hate nature.” Stevens watched his daughter zip the tent closed behind her. He sighed and dried a spot on the picnic bench next to his wife. “I don’t get it,” he said. “Last year, she was begging to go camping. What happened?” Nancy Stevens looked up from her novel. “She’s growing up, Kirk. It happens.” “Not like this,” Stevens said. “This isn’t maturing. This is Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This isn’t the same girl.” “Sure it is.” Nancy turned her flashlight toward the lakeshore, where ten-year-old JJ chased fireflies with his dog by the water. “She’s just getting older. Her priorities are changing.” “So now her priority is a stupid cell phone.” “Not the phone, Kirk.” Nancy gave him a sly smile. “It’s the boy on the other end of it.” Stevens frowned. “A boy.” “Uh-huh.” “Andrea has a boyfriend?” Nancy turned back to her book. “You didn’t hear it from me.” Stevens considered his daughter’s tent again. The light from her phone shone through the thin nylon walls. Every minute or so, those walls shook, accompanied by a slap and a groan as Andrea swatted another mosquito. A boyfriend, Stevens thought. Already? As long as Stevens could remember, his daughter had loved the family’s annual summer vacation in the woods. Every year, he and Nancy would pack up his old Cherokee with tents and coolers and inflatable rafts and take the kids north from Saint Paul into some real terrain—well, mostly just family campgrounds on one of Minnesota’s famous ten thousand lakes, but if you got a quiet campsite and were willing to pretend, you could almost imagine you were Louis Hennepin or Pierre-Charles Le Sueur, venturing into uncharted wilderness. This year, more than ever, Stevens needed a break. A special agent with the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, he’d worked the spring months on a blockbuster case, another Carla Windermere special. In the three years that he’d known his beautiful FBI counterpart, Stevens had helped Windermere put down a kidnapping ring, a violent bank robber, and, this past April, the ringleader of an online contract-killing operation called Killswitch. It had been another exhausting, exhilarating ride, and as soon as the case was closed, the paperwork was stamped and signed, and JJ and Andrea were out of school for the summer, Stevens had filled up the Jeep with family, dog, and provisions, and pointed it north for a couple well-deserved weeks off, away from the BCA, Windermere, and any cell phones. This summer’s destination was Itasca State Park, the headwaters of the Mississippi River, some two hundred miles northwest of the Twin Cities. Stevens had been looking forward to exploring the park with his family, hiking, fishing, swimming, and maybe checking out a few of the pioneer landmarks in the area. Usually, his daughter was an enthusiastic sidekick. This year, though, Andrea was treating her vacation like a prison march. Stevens looked around for the matches. Found them beneath one of Andrea’s teen-heartthrob magazines. Both the magazine and the matches were soggy; the storm had kind of surprised the Stevenses in their campsite. Stevens held up the matchbox. “Not going to have much luck cooking dinner without a fire,” he told Nancy. “Maybe I’ll take lover girl to town with me, get some more matches.” “So what’s so impOrtant that you can’t spend a couple weeks in the wilderness with your old dad?” Stevens asked his daughter as they drove away from the campground toward the Lake Itasca townsite. It was fully dark now, the headlights of Stevens’s Cherokee lighting up the dirt road and the forest beyond, the moths and mosquitoes and the odd pair of eyes from a creature in the woods. In the passenger seat, Andrea rolled her eyes. “Nothing, Dad. Don’t worry about it.” “You used to love this stuff, kiddo. Now you fiddle around with that phone all day. You haven’t even gone swimming.” “The water’s too cold,” Andrea said. “Never used to bug you before.” Stevens grinned at her. “Your mother says you might have a new friend back in town.” “Dad!” Andrea went bright red. “She did not say that.” “I think the term she used was ‘boyfriend.’ ” “Oh. My. God. Not even.” Andrea shook her head furiously and turned to look out the window. “We’re just friends. I can’t believe Mom told you that.” “He have a name, this guy?” Andrea hesitated. “Calvin,” she said. “As in Calvin and Hobbes? He come with a tiger?” “What?” “Before your time,” Stevens said. “Look, here’s the townsite. Maybe you’ll get some reception.” Andrea pulled out her phone as the lights of the townsite—barely more than a hostel and a corner store—came into view. To Stevens’s surprise, though, it was his own phone that began to buzz. Three missed calls, all from Tim Lesley. Strange, Stevens thought. Tim Lesley was his boss, the Special Agent in Charge of Investigations at the Minnesota BCA. And even though Stevens was on vacation, pending a new assignment on a joint BCA-FBI violent crimes task force, something was bothering Lesley enough to call his star agent in the middle of the woods. Stevens glanced at his daughter. “Any luck?” Andrea fiddled with her cell phone, held it aloft, and made a face. “No,” she said. “Tough beans.” Stevens sighed as he dialed Lesley’s number. “Wanna trade?” 5 The barbecue was winding dOwn when Andrei Volovoi’s phone began to ring. Instinctively, he stiffened in his seat, scanned the backyard as, in her lawn chair beside him, Veronika giggled. “What kind of ringtone is that, Uncle Andrei?” she said as the phone continued to ring in his pocket. “It sounds like your phone is from 1980.” Volovoi smiled back at his niece. “It’s a genuine antique, Veronika,” he told her. “I bought it when I was your age.” He excused himself from the table, stood, and wandered into his sister’s backyard, where darkness had fallen fully and mosquitoes swarmed. He removed the phone from his pocket, a cheap, corner- store throwaway, and checked the number on the screen. Bogdan Urzica, one of his drivers. He would be calling from the road, probably Minnesota. Volovoi glanced back at the table, made sure none of his family could overhear. Then he answered the phone. “Bogdan.” “We have a problem, Andrei.” Even from fifteen hundred miles away, Bogdan Urzica’s voice made Volovoi nervous. The driver and his partner, the idiot Nikolai Kirilenko, were at this moment delivering another cargo of Volovoi’s women to their buyers. Any problem Bogdan might have was bound to be serious. Volovoi retreated farther into the backyard. Watched his sister gather his two nieces, Veronika and little Adriana, and herd them toward the house. In the distance, Volovoi could hear traffic on Ocean Parkway, happy laughter, the sounds of another Brighton Beach summer night. Inside, though, he felt cold, despite the humid air. He turned away from the house and spoke quietly into his phone. “What kind of problem?” “A girl escaped the box,” Bogdan told him, “in northern Minnesota, just now. There is a dead man. A police officer. We had no choice.” Volovoi closed his eyes. He trusted Bogdan Urzica. If the man was not a friend, he was a good acquaintance anyway. He was a hard worker. He was cautious. He avoided problems. He was a man Andrei Volovoi could respect. If Bogdan Urzica had killed a police officer, he’d had a good reason to do so. Still, the thought made Volovoi’s stomach churn. “We are safe,” Bogdan told him. “We escaped with the rest of the cargo. If you have no hesitations, Nikolai and I will continue our deliveries.” Volovoi forced himself to exhale. Relax. It was not the first time a girl had escaped from the box. It was not the first time the drivers had been forced to kill someone. In any case, the girl probably didn’t speak English. Most of them didn’t, but they still bought the dream that Volovoi’s pickers sold them. A new life in America. Supermodel. Actress. Fame and fortune. Hell, Volovoi thought, any woman dumb enough to fall for the trap deserves the box and whatever comes after. Generally, though, he tried not to think about the women. He was too busy keeping his business afloat. Bogdan Urzica cleared his throat. “Boss?” It was troublesome that a girl had escaped. It was bad, very bad, that a police officer was dead. But these things happened when you made your living selling women. There were always going to be risks, no matter how fervently you fought to contain them. No matter how often you tried to preach prudence. This was not a disaster, Volovoi decided. Therefore, there was no reason to mention it to the Dragon. He crossed the backyard to where Veronika watched him from the doorway, her blond hair falling in ringlets across her face. Volovoi waved at her, watched her face light up as she smiled back at him. He exhaled again, felt the tightness in his chest dissipate. “Everything will be fine,” he told Bogdan Urzica. “Carry on with your deliveries as planned.” 6 “It’s just fOr the day,” Stevens said. “We’ll check out Leech Lake, have a nice dinner. Stay for the night, maybe.” Andrea pumped her fist. “Yes,” she said. “Mom, can we?” “I just don’t understand why Lesley can’t find someone else,” Nancy said from across the campfire. “You’re on vacation, Kirk.” Stevens pulled his marshmallow away from the fire. Even, golden brown. He reached behind him for a Hershey bar and a couple of graham crackers, assembled the perfect s’more, and handed it off to JJ. “There you go, kiddo,” he said. “Make sure Triceratops doesn’t get any of that chocolate, right?” Triceratops, JJ’s big German shepherd, fixed Stevens with a mournful expression. Stevens scratched behind the dog’s ears. “It’s forty miles away,” he told his wife. “I’m closer than any other agent. He said it’s an open-and-shut kind of deal. The sheriff’s department just wants someone there to oversee the procedure. Make sure every i’s dotted, that kind of thing.” “And it has to be you,” Nancy said. “Sounds like it,” Stevens said. “On the bright side, Cass County’s springing for motel rooms.” He grinned at her. “Two of them.” In truth, Stevens was a little miffed that Tim Lesley had decided to interrupt his vacation for some kind of procedural exercise. Yes, Itasca State Park was less than forty miles from the Cass County Sheriff’s Office in Walker, but so was Bemidji, where the BCA’s forensics team was based. Surely someone could spare the drive. The case itself was kind of a head-scratcher. A sheriff’s deputy, headed back to Walker from his favorite fishing hole, stops at a local diner for a cup of coffee and a slice of pie before the rain sets in. Finishes the pie, wanders out into the parking lot, and gets himself shot. When the deputy’s colleagues arrive, they find a hysterical young woman holding the guy’s personal Smith & Wesson, the mag empty. Gunpowder residue on her hands. Three holes in the guy’s chest and forehead. “Easy-peasy,” Lesley had said. “Sheriff’s office just wants some outside oversight. They don’t get too many homicides, so they want to make sure they’re doing this one right.” “Who’s the woman?” Stevens asked. “Nobody’s sure yet,” Lesley said. “She didn’t have ID on her, and best anyone can tell, she wasn’t speaking much English.” “So why’d she kill this guy Friesen?” “Who knows?” Lesley replied. “Like I said, she’s not saying much.” A mystery woman. No ID. No English. No clue how she got to the truck stop, or how she got her hands on that deputy’s piece. Maybe the sheriff’s department has a better line on her, Stevens thought, surveying his family across the campfire. The last thing I need is another blockbuster. 7 However she felt about the rest of Derek Mathers, Carla Windermere had to admit that the junior FBI agent was pretty damn good in bed. And a good thing, too. Windermere had almost given up on sex after Mark had walked out on her and moved back to Miami two and a half years ago. She had pretty well resigned herself to living alone, avoiding complications. People were overrated, she’d decided. Relationships got messy, and Windermere liked her life clean. She sat up in bed and studied Mathers, all six-plus feet of goofy corn-fed Wisconsin farm boy tangled up in her new cotton sheets, smiling that dumb smile that, despite her best efforts, always seemed to worm its way past her defenses. “Goddamn it, Carla,” Mathers said. “I think we’re on to something here.” She’d have bet money he was wrong a few months back, after they’d hooked up the first time in a Philadelphia Four Points, middle of the last case. She’d figured the big lug would make a decent stress reliever, that a guy with his looks and easygoing personality would have no trouble buying in for some no- strings-attached action. Hell, he’d told her he joined the FBI because he wanted to be like Keanu Reeves in Point Break. At the time, Windermere figured the guy had a whole harem of badge bunnies waiting for him back in Minneapolis. But Mathers had surprised her. He’d pursued her once the case broke, and when she finally relented and agreed to see him again, she found he wasn’t just the dumb lunkhead he liked to pretend to be. He’d traveled. He read books. He was a terrible dancer, but he was willing to try salsa, willing to laugh at himself when he sucked at it. And when Windermere needed her space, he didn’t get needy, or whiny, or start brooding, didn’t sulk the way Mark had always done. And moreover, he was dynamite in bed—not that Windermere would ever let him hear that. She stood, pulled on a hoodie, and drew open the curtains of her downtown Minneapolis condo, letting the morning light into the bedroom. “Yeah,” she said. “Whatever. That was okay, I guess.” “‘Okay’?” Mathers sprang up from the bed and was instantly beside her, his arms wrapping her up and drawing her close. He was so big and strong and relentlessly enthusiastic that she felt herself caving, as always. Just like a damn girl. Some lovestruck teenager. “Just ‘okay’?” Mathers asked again, his chin resting on her shoulder, his breath on her neck. “You were singing a different tune a couple minutes ago, lady.” “A couple minutes, yeah,” she said. “Next time, try for five. Maybe you’ll get more of a reaction.” Mathers laughed and picked her up, carried her back to the bed. Tossed her down and pinned her with those piercing blue eyes of his. Windermere let him kiss her, then shoved him away. “Okay, you big lug,” she said. “We’re going to be late.” “You know you like me,” he said, releasing her. “No matter how much you try to play badass.” She walked to her closet, started picking out an outfit. “I don’t have to play badass, Mathers,” she said. “But, yeah, maybe I like you just a little.” “Good enough for me.” Mathers padded to the kitchen. She heard him fiddle with the coffeemaker, and then the TV came on. She ducked into the bathroom, started the shower. “Want some company?” Mathers called. Yes, please, Windermere thought, but she was running late already, and not for the first time she cursed the FBI and its damn heightened-security concerns. Up to about a year ago, the Bureau’s regional headquarters had been located in downtown Minneapolis, just a few blocks from Windermere’s Mill District condo. Last year, though, the entire circus had moved north, way north, to a brand- new, high-security compound on the outskirts of town. Totally screwed up her commute. “No time,” Windermere called back. She closed the bathroom door and locked it, lest he get any funny ideas. Showered, she did her makeup, and when she came out of the bathroom, Mathers was in the living room, watching the news. “You see this?” he said. “Sheriff’s deputy shot somewhere up north. Some girl did it, they figure. Only, she doesn’t speak any English.” Windermere studied the TV. Footage of the tiny sheriff’s office in Walker, Minnesota, a couple of cruisers and a young woman being ushered inside. She was tall and incredibly thin, with long brown hair and dark, haunted eyes. “No ID on her, either,” Mathers said. “Nobody can figure out where she came from.” “Walker.” Windermere poured herself a cup of coffee. “Where the hell is that, anyway?” “Up north somewhere. Leech Lake, or something? Mississippi headwaters, thereabouts. Lake country.” “Huh.” Windermere sipped her coffee. “I wonder if . . .” “Yeah?” She shook her head. “Just wondered if it was anywhere near Stevens, I guess.” Mathers’s expression clouded briefly at the mention of the BCA agent’s name. Then he shrugged. “Could be,” he said. “Who knows? You said he was camping up there somewhere, right?” “Could be anywhere, Mathers,” Windermere said. “The hell do I know about this miserable state?” She picked up the remote and shut off the television. “Put some pants on. We’re going to be late.”

Editorial Reviews

Praise for THE STOLEN ONES“...breakneck pacing, scarily plausible evils, and steadily rising stakes...”—Christine Tran, Booklist“From start to finish, a fast-moving and satisfying thriller starring a likable if unlikely duo....The two agents have worked together before (Kill Fee, 2014, etc.), and if there's justice in the literary world, they will team up on many more cases.” —Kirkus ReviewPraise for KILL FEE “Laukkanen’s fast-paced, no-frills style is brisk, blunt, and fueled entirely by adrenaline.”—Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review “Enthralling . . . Kill Fee works well as an in-depth police procedural and an insightful look at amorality and greed. Laukkanen employs the same strengths of brisk plotting and incisive character studies that he established in his first two novels.”—Associated Press “[Kill Fee is] further proof that Laukkanen is one of the best young thriller writers working today. His pace is relentless, his plots are satisfyingly intricate and his prose is cut-to-the-bone lean . . . Perhaps as importantly, his books boast social relevance. Like David Baldacci, a veteran of the thinking man’s thriller genre, Laukkanen understands the value of tying an exhilarating adventure back to the pressing concerns of the real world.”—Richmond Times-Dispatch “Just two books in [The Professionals and Criminal Enterprise] and Laukkanen is a master at elevating stakes and keeping those prize pages turning. Book No. 3 in the Stevens & Windermere series, Kill Fee, is even better.” —Sarah Weinman, National Post “Blistering pace and a stomach-turning homicide-for-hire scheme . . . Laukkanen keeps readers engaged with a serpentine plot that writhes through high-tech and low-life corruption.”—Publishers Weekly “Pulse-pounding…you won’t put this third Stevens and Windermere installment down unfinished.”—Kirkus Reviews