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The new Stevens and Windermere novel from one of the most dazzlingly acclaimed new writers in crime fiction.
The billionaire picked a heck of a way to die. On a beautiful Saturday in downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota, state investigator Kirk Stevens and FBI special agent Carla Windermere, witness the assassination of one of the state’s wealthiest men. The shooter is a young man, utterly unremarkable…except for the dead look in his eyes.
And it’s only the beginning. The events of that sunny springtime day will lead Stevens and Windermere across the country, down countless blind alleys, and finally to a very flourishing twenty-first century enterprise: a high-tech murder-for-hire social media website. But just who has the dead-eyed shooter targeted next…and who’s choosing his victims?
About the Author
Owen Laukkanen’s first novel, The Professionals, was nominated for multiple honors, including the Anthony Award, Barry Award, Spinetingler Magazine Best Novel, New Voices Award, and International Thriller Writers’ Thriller Award for Best First Novel. His second Stevens and Windermere Novel is Criminal Enterprise.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2014 by Owen Laukkanen
The billionaire picked a heck of a day to die.
It was a sunny Saturday in early April, a beautiful afternoon, the kind of day that seemed to chase away any memory of the long Minnesota winter just passed. It was not the kind of afternoon for a murder.
An hour before the billionaire met his end, a plain-looking man and a beautiful woman met for a greasy lunch at the old dining car on West 7th Street, and when they’d finished, dawdled slowly along St. Peter toward the Mississippi River.
They made an odd couple. He was paunchy and balding, pale and comfortably middle-aged. She was brown-skinned, statuesque, and maybe even a little severe, more than a decade his junior. And though they walked close beside each other, talked easily, and laughed quickly, there was a slight hesitation in their manner, an unresolved tension. They were something more than simply passing friends.
They reached 5th Street and turned west, walked past the stately old Saint Paul Hotel and into Rice Park, an oasis of calm amid the rush of the city. The day was sunny but still crisp, and the park was filled with families and other couples, native Minnesotans and tourists alike. The man and the woman walked aimlessly, took a leisurely tack past the Landmark Center, with its pink granite towers and turrets, and then crossed through the park toward the vast Central Library. They bought coffees inside the Saint Paul Hotel, and then wandered back out and found a bench in Rice Park. It was a Saturday afternoon, and neither Kirk Stevens nor Carla Windermere had anywhere else to be.
In truth, they looked forward to these meetings, Stevens and Windermere both. They weren’t always so languid—work, the Minnesota weather, and the demands of Stevens’s family made routines a fantasy—but they happened, a couple times a month, maybe, and that was almost enough.
Windermere sipped her coffee and tilted her head skyward, basking in the sun’s warmth. “This is what I’m talking about, Stevens,” she said. “This is what I’ve been waiting for. Sunlight. Warmth. Vitamin D.”
Stevens grinned at her. “Summer’s coming,” he said. “You survived another winter. You’re practically a Minnesotan now.”
“Like hell.” Windermere glanced at him sideways. “I’m a warm-weather girl, always will be. No matter how many snowstorms I live through.”
“You like it up here, though,” he said. “Kind of. Admit it.”
“Maybe. It ain’t the weather, though.”
He cocked his head. “Then what is it?”
Windermere shook her head, the hint of a smile on her lips. She took another sip of coffee and set the cup down on the bench between them. Then she looked around the park.
People milled about, enjoying the sunshine, taking pictures of the fountain, the Landmark Center, the hotel, the statues of the characters from the comic strip Peanuts—homage to its creator, Charles Schulz, a Twin Cities native. Windermere watched a family crowd around Charlie Brown, all of them smiling wide, posing for the camera, laughing and jostling one another. She waited until the picture had been taken and the family had wandered off before she turned back to Stevens.
“It ain’t the people, either,” she said. “So don’t get any ideas. It’s not the food, or the scenery, or the nightlife. Miami’s got Minnesota beat every time.”
“Then it must be the work,” Stevens said. “Is that it?”
“The work.” Windermere pursed her lips. “Yeah, I guess so, Stevens. It must be the work.”
Two and a half years earlier, Kirk Stevens had driven from Saint Paul to the FBI’s regional headquarters in downtown Minneapolis, where he’d met a woman with bewitching eyes and a slight southern accent who’d sat him down in her cubicle in the Criminal Investigative Division and listened as he outlined a sensational theory about a group of nomadic young kidnappers. The woman was Windermere, and Stevens, a special agent with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, needed her help tracking the kidnappers out of state.
He’d intended to drop the case in Windermere’s lap and forget about it—he was, after all, just a state policeman—but Windermere had insisted he join her, put in a special request, and Stevens had found himself on a plane to Chicago less than a day later. It was the start of the rollercoaster ride of Stevens’s career.
A year or so later, it happened again. Carter Tomlin, a wealthy Saint Paul accountant-turned-bank-robber, an acquaintance of Stevens’s. Windermere sniffed him out. Stevens hadn’t believed her. Neither had her FBI partner, or her superiors, not until Tomlin had started to kill. Not until he’d dragged Stevens and his family into the middle of his murderous spree.
They’d drifted quickly apart after that first kidnapping case. The second time, after Tomlin, they’d stayed close. Even amid the awful terror and the adrenaline rush, the sickening race against time and Tomlin’s dwindling sanity, Stevens had realized he’d missed Agent Windermere. And though the FBI agent was about as prickly as a sea urchin, Stevens knew she felt the same.
So now here they were, a year after Carter Tomlin, sharing a park bench in downtown Saint Paul, drinking coffee and enjoying the sun, talking and laughing like lifelong friends. It was, Stevens thought as he looked around at the park, an almost perfect day.
Across the street, a silver Bentley sedan turned into the driveway in front of the Saint Paul Hotel. Stevens watched it glide to a stop outside the building’s ivy-covered façade. Windermere nudged him. “Check it out,” she said. “Maybe it’s Prince.”
“I get it.” Stevens shook his head. “Because this is Minnesota, right? Everybody in a nice car has to be Prince.”
“Or F. Scott Fitzgerald. But I don’t think he rolls in a Bentley.”
“I don’t think he rolls, period,” said Stevens. “I figure at this point he’s pretty much stationary.”
They watched as the driver climbed out of the Bentley and circled around to open the rear passenger door. A short, white-haired man in an expensive suit stepped out to the pavement.
“Fitzgerald,” said Windermere. “What did I tell you?”
Stevens squinted across the driveway. “He looks old enough, anyway.”
The white-haired man leaned on a cane as he stepped away from the big sedan and started slowly toward the hotel’s front doors. Windermere cast an arch eye at her companion. “Barely looks older than you, Stevens.”
Stevens arched an eyebrow. Started to reply, but never got the words out. A shot cracked out from somewhere, cutting him off. Someone screamed. A split second later, the white-haired man collapsed to the pavement.
Windermere was on her feet before the white-haired man hit the ground. She ran across the cobblestone street and up the hotel driveway, dodging angry taxicabs as horns blared. Someone was still screaming. Bystanders ducked for cover.
The man was dead; Windermere knew it instantly. He’d taken the shot to the back of his head, just behind his right ear, and the results were not pretty. There was blood, lots of it. Bone, too. Gore spattered the driveway. Windermere dashed toward the hotel doors and ducked behind the big Bentley, wishing she’d brought her service Glock. “Everybody stay down,” she said. “And someone call 9-1-1.”
Stevens crashed in beside her, breathing hard. Looked across at the white-haired man. “Shit,” he said. “Where’s the shooter?”
Windermere crouched low and played the scene back in her head. Heard the shot again; watched the white-haired man fall. Pictured the entry wound and tried to map the bullet’s trajectory. “Sniper,” she said.
Stevens got it immediately. He twisted around and peered across the back of the big sedan. Behind them, the Landmark Center loomed, its myriad turrets and towers excellent vantage points for any would-be killer with a rifle and a scope. Stevens nudged her. “Up there.”
Lind dropped the rifle as soon as the target fell. He stood and pulled the window closed, and then walked out of the room and onto the balcony surrounding the inner courtyard.
Already there were sirens outside. Word was spreading. People stood on the balcony, their office doors open, cell phones and paperwork still clutched in their hands. They shot quizzical looks in Lind’s direction. He ignored them and walked along the balcony to the stairs.
The sirens grew louder as he descended to ground level. The stairwell was crowded. Clerks. Secretaries. Librarians and curators from the museums housed inside the center. Lind walked past a tour group and descended quickly to the main level, then crossed the courtyard to the building’s front doors. He slipped around another group of confused workers and hurried out into daylight, passing a man and a woman on the front stairs, a black woman and an older white man, their jaws set, both of them moving quickly. Lind didn’t slow down. He turned right on 5th Street, away from the swarm of police cars outside the hotel, and kept walking.
» » »
Stevens and Windermere hurried into the Landmark Center, dodging scared civilians every step of the way. It was chaos inside, people everywhere. Stevens pushed through to the inner courtyard, Windermere right behind him. “The towers,” Stevens said. “How do we get up there?”
Windermere searched the courtyard. Spotted a set of stairs. “Come on.”
A woman flew out of the stairwell just as they approached. Nearly collided with Stevens, her eyes wide and wild. Windermere caught her. “Whoa,” she said. “Slow down. What’s the rush?”
The woman squirmed. Fought Windermere’s grasp. “Let me go,” she said. “I have to find the police.”
“We’re police,” Stevens told her. “BCA. FBI. What’s the story?”
The woman looked at Windermere. Then at Stevens’s badge. The woman glanced at it and pointed across the courtyard. “Thank God,” she said. “He went that way.”
“Who?” said Windermere.
“The shooter. He went that way. I followed him down.”
Windermere swapped glances with Stevens. “Describe him,” she said.
“A smaller guy. Brown hair in a buzz cut. Young. Mid-twenties, maybe.” She looked at them, her expression urgent. “He’s getting away.”
“We passed him,” said Stevens. “On the steps. We walked right past him.”
Windermere was already halfway across the courtyard. “Let’s go, Stevens,” she said. “You coming or what?”
They left the woman in the Landmark Center and burst out onto 5th Street again, Windermere in the lead, moving fast. She turned right and kept running. Stevens struggled to follow. He kept himself in decent shape, mostly, but Windermere was a heck of a lot younger. Plus she’d been some kind of track star back home in Mississippi.
Windermere reached the end of the block and slowed to look up and down Washington. Then, just as Stevens caught up, she took off again. Stevens paused, caught his breath. Then he hurried after her.
» » »
Lind walked west down 5th Street, skirting the high, windowless brick walls of the stadium where the pro hockey team played. He walked quicker now on the empty sidewalks, the sirens and the chaos retreating into the background. He walked quicker, but he didn’t run. Running would attract undue attention.
He circled the arena until he reached 7th Street, and then cut across the busy intersection, toward the bus station. Downtown was behind him now; the land here was vacant—event parking for the hockey arena, mostly. In the distance, he could see the spire of the Cathedral of Saint Paul.
Lind cut through a thin copse of trees lining 7th and came out into a half-empty parking lot. He walked across the dusty gravel until he reached his car, and was about to climb in when someone called out behind him.
Lind turned and saw the black woman from outside the Landmark Center hurrying toward him. Her companion followed, about thirty feet back, both of them running hard, their faces determined. Lind watched them approach.
» » »
“Stop!” Windermere called across the parking lot. The kid did as he was told. He straightened. Turned from his little hatchback and looked at her. Windermere met his gaze and felt a chill run through her.
He was a normal-looking guy, just as the woman at the Landmark Center had described. Probably five seven or five eight, he had close-cut brown hair and was dressed like your everyday rube. He looked normal. Except that he didn’t. He didn’t look normal at all.
It was his face. His eyes. It was his slack expression, the way he studied her with no hint of malice, no fear, barely any comprehension at all. Windermere slowed, involuntary, wishing again that she’d remembered her Glock.
The kid looked at her for a couple seconds. Then he turned around— calm, deliberate. Slid into the car and turned the engine over and drove out of the lot.
Stevens caught up to Windermere. “Why’d you slow down?” he said. “You had him.”
Ahead of them, the car reached the end of the parking lot and pulled out onto 7th Street. It drove fast, but not wild. Not out of control.
“Chevy, right?” Stevens said, pulling out his cell phone. “An Aveo, I think. You get the plates?”
“Yeah,” Windermere said. “I got them.”
Stevens had his phone to his ear. “Crowson,” he said. “Get a pen. The shooting downtown, the Saint Paul Hotel. We make the shooter’s ride.”
He handed Windermere the phone. Windermere recited the plate number and handed the phone back to Stevens.
“Get that to Saint Paul PD,” Stevens told Crowson. “It’s a little Chevy hatchback, gray, an Aveo, most likely. Get them looking.” Stevens ended the call and turned back to Windermere. “So what the hell happened?”
Windermere looked out to where the gray car had disappeared into traffic. Didn’t answer a moment. “I just lost it, Stevens,” she said finally. “The kid looked at me and I spooked.”
“Spooked. What the heck do you mean?”
“I just lost it.” She shrugged. “It’s like I was a potted plant, the way he looked at me. A cloud or something, insignificant. Like I wasn’t a cop and he wasn’t a killer.”
“You didn’t show him your badge,” said Stevens, “or your gun. Maybe he didn’t make you for a cop.”
Windermere shook her head. “It was more than that,” she said. “He just murdered somebody. He was making his escape. And he looked at me like he was waiting for a bus.”
She frowned, staring across the parking lot toward 7th Street, where the traffic slipped past, normal, like nothing had happened at all.
They walked back along 5th Street toward Rice Park and the Landmark Center and the Saint Paul Hotel. There were police everywhere now, and ambulances and the rest. TV news trucks. Bystanders. Like a movie scene.
Here we go again. Stevens f lashed back to the kidnappers, Arthur Pender and his gang. Carter Tomlin and his team of bank robbers. He felt a brief twinge of excitement, and nursed it as long as he dared. Then he chased it from his mind.
Not your case, he thought. Not Windermere’s, either. This is Saint Paul PD all the way.
They waded back into the mix. Showed their badges to the uniform holding the line outside the hotel’s driveway. Then they walked up to the entrance, where the white-haired man’s body still lay on the pavement.
Uniforms lurked at the margins. Forensic techs combed the body. A couple dour-faced men in rumpled suits stood by the Bentley, sipping coffee, watching the techs. Every now and then one of them would crack a joke and the other would laugh a little, grim. Homicide cops.
Windermere f lashed her badge at them. “Windermere, FBI,” she said. “Who’s working point?”
The men glanced at each other. Then the older guy stepped forward. “Parent,” he said. “Remember me?”
“The Tomlin case,” Windermere said, nodding. “You worked that poker game, right? This one yours, too?”
“At least until the FBI takes it off my hands.”
“No such luck. We’re just witnesses, Detective. This one’s yours.” She introduced Stevens.
Parent looked at them both. “Witnesses, huh? The two of you together?”
“Interdepartmental bonding,” said Stevens. “We saw the shooting from that bench over there. Got a look at your suspect and the plates off his car.”
“No shit.” Parent glanced back at the body. Then he pulled out a notepad. “Well, all right, witnesses,” he said. “Tell me what you know.”
Lind drove the speed limit southwest down 7th Street, trying to blend in with traffic. Trying to ignore the little pinprick of panic that had started to itch in his mind.
The black woman would have memorized his plates. She would have called them in to the police. Right now, the police would be looking for the car.
Remove yourself from the scene without being detected. Don’t attract undue attention. Secondary objective.
Lind checked the road for police cars. Checked his rearview mirror, oncoming traffic, the parking lots that lined the road. He saw a couple cruisers. They didn’t follow him. He kept driving.
What People are Saying About This
Praise 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
Praise for CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE:
“[Criminal Enterprise is] one hell of a wild ride – full of corkscrews, cutbacks, blind curves, and barrel rolls. The pace is quick, the plot is intricate, and the stakes start out high and increase exponentially over the course of the tale.”—Crimespree
“Laukkanen, one of the best thriller writers to emerge in the wake of the Great Recession, has a keen understanding of what readers expect in a crime thriller. His pace is relentless, and he shifts expertly between his characters’ perspectives, short chapter by short chapter, as he hurls readers toward an inevitably explosive finale.” ––Richmond Times-Dispatch
“"Criminal Enterprise" showcases Laukkanen's original storytelling. We can't wait to find out which everyman-turned-criminal Carla and Kirk tangle with next.”—South Florida Sun-Sentinel
"Fans of crime thrillers shouldn't miss this one or anything else with Laukkanen's name on the cover. The writing is so crisp, the pages almost want to turn themselves. He's a terrific storyteller."—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
"Laukkanen as clearly avoided the sophomore slump, deftly alternating taut narratives and building toward a grand climax that's completely organic to the story. Windermere, Stevens, and Tomlin are strikingly realistic characters sharing varying degrees of dissatisfaction with their lives, and readers will identify with their struggles to reconcile their own needs with their responsibilities to others."—Booklist (starred review)
“Criminal Enterprise is a bloody good thriller” ––Ft. Worth Star-Telegram
“Laukkanen keeps the tension high…this is a suspenseful ride.”––Houston Chronicle
“Owen Laukkanen: Latest novel is Criminal Enterprise. Laukkanen’s 2012 debut The Professionals was my favorite debut of the year and seems to have set a tone for his series—focusing on the impact of the economic downturn. While that might not seem to be the basis of an exciting thriller, Laukkanen has made it so. His are action-packed stories that also are contemporary cautionary tales. Laukkanen also gives a vivid look at amorality, entitlement and consequences.”—Mystery Scene
“If you’ve ever wanted to write a terrific crime novel, Criminal Enterprise could well be the blueprint.” ––New York Journal of Books
“This high-voltage thriller practically deserves a warning label on its cover... the writing is so crisp you can almost hear it crunch between your teeth, and the action builds to a jaws-clenching finish.”–– Read Me Deadly
“The Professionals was highly and rightly praised...Criminal Enterprise is even better. Laukkanen has a plot line built on the death of the American Dream.” –– The Globe and Mail
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Stevens and Windmere are thrust into a new mystery unexpectedly when a murder is committed right in front of them. This murder is more complicated and more far reaching than either one of them initially could expect. A crisp, factual, and action driven narrative fills the pages. Characters and dialogue interact extremely well with an authentic and varied feel. Without giving too much plot away, I shall leave it at this: Overall, a thrilling read.
Kill Fee is the third novel from Owen Laukkanen. I've read and really enjoyed his first two books. Kill Fee again brings together Minnesota State Investigator Kirk Stevens and special agent Carla Windermere. Killswitch - murder for hire. And the contact method? On the web. The puppet master behind these hired assassins is fiendishly clever and extremely ruthless. But, he's also greedy. And that greed starts the dominoes falling... Laukkanen's novels are always cleverly and inventively plotted. The choosing and training of the killers is perhaps not so far from the truth. And the online 'shopping' is not far fetched either. Kill Fee is packed full of action, twists and turns and reads like an action film. (It would make a great movie) In every one of Laukkanen's novels, I always end up rooting for one of the 'bad' guys. In this case, it's one of the hired killers. There's been a 'romantic' - or perhaps attraction is a better description - subplot between Stevens and Windermere that began in the first book and has continued. This undercurrent does provide us with a more personal glimpse at the characters and adds another layer of tension to the plot. But by the end of Kill Fee, I was growing tired of the back and forth. Personally, I think it's time to put it to bed.(Sorry, couldn't resist) A definite page turner and thoroughly entertaining. Fans of John Sandford and Lee Child would enjoy this series. Both authors have provided cover blurbs for Laukkanen's books. Kill Fee can certainly be read as a stand alone, but the first two books are definitely worth picking up. And I'll be waiting for the fourth.