UNSUB

April 1998

The yelling woke her, the rough voice of her father, shouting into the phone.

“Listen to me. We don’t have days. We have hours.”

The black sky poured through the bedroom window. Shadows crawled the ceiling.

“Don’t you understand? It’s in his message — Mercury rises with the sun.”

Caitlin curled into a ball, hugging her bear. She knew what Mercury meant. It meant flashing lights and BREAKING NEWS and everybody so scared. A body bag sliding into the coroner’s black van. KILLER CLAIMS EIGHTH VICTIM. It meant you could never close your eyes or turn your back. Because he could get you anytime, anywhere.

“He’s telling us, flat out. When the sun comes up he’s going to kill again.”

And her dad had to stop it.

That’s why each word Mack Hendrix spoke sounded angrier than the last. Why his shirt was dirty and he hadn’t shaved in three days and when he came home for an hour he ignored dinner and the Warriors’ game and her. Why he paced and stared at the walls and yelled into the phone.

The back door creaked. “Because I’ve goddamn worked this case for five years. I know.”

Caitlin slid from under the covers and crept to the window. Her dad stepped outside, lit a cigarette, and stalked across the backyard. Lights reflected on his gun and detective’s shield. His shoulders were bent. That frightened her. The wind blurred his words.

She tiptoed from her room. Her parents’ door was shut, Mom asleep. She slipped into the kitchen to the open window, to hear what he was saying.

“. . . we work the evidence. We keep working. Or somebody dies.”

She stopped. The door into the garage was open a crack.

The rule was: Never go in the garage unless Dad says it’s okay. He spread files on the workbench in there. All his information. But sometimes he let her in, to help stack his papers. Her stomach knotted. She looked out the kitchen window again, into the backyard. The cigarette glowed red.

Answers were in the garage. Truth. She edged to the door and stole through.

She stopped, bare feet cold on the concrete. The walls were covered with photos.

Faces. Flesh. Open eyes. Jagged slices. Blood. Her head began to pound.

A plastic bag on a screaming face. Bite marks. Dogs. At the edges of her vision, starlight shivered. A cut. A cut, he cut with a knife in the person’s chest, a dead person, she’s dead.

A sound rose from her throat. He cut a picture into the woman. Stick figure. It.

She turned in a slow circle. She saw dangling feet. Frankenstein stitches. An arm with words scrawled on it — despair. Her legs started to shake. The cuts the cuts the cuts. The sign.

Dizzy, she turned. The photos seemed to lunge and wail. Devilman him him. She pressed her hands over her mouth, but the sound grew louder.

Footsteps pounded through the kitchen. The door banged open. “Jesus, no.”

Her dad charged in, mouth wide, eyes burning. The sound poured from her throat, uncontrollable screams.

He swept her in his arms. “Don’t look, Caitlin. Close your eyes.”

She buried her face in his chest, but the photos howled and clawed. She sobbed, clutching him, feeling him shake. The work of the killer was everywhere. Mercury, the messenger. The Prophet.

They were surrounded.

***

Equinox
Present Day

Caitlin closed the front door behind her and flipped the dead bolt. Her footsteps echoed on the hardwood floor. A table lamp gave the living room an amber glow. She reached to unhook her duty belt. She couldn’t get her fingers to work the buckle. She closed her eyes and clenched her fists. After a few seconds the shaking eased. She unbuckled the belt and dropped it, clattering, on the coffee table.

Her jeans were torn, her knee swollen where she’d hit the crank-​house kitchen floor. Her red hair was disheveled. Beneath her white T‑shirt, the scarred bullet hole in her shoulder ached. The world seemed bright and supersonic.

From the back of the house, Shadow came running. Big ears alert, tongue lolling. Caitlin knelt and buried her face in Shadow’s soft exuberance and let the dog lick her face. The tremor in her hands subsided.

She leaned back and looked at Shadow’s bright eyes. “Who’s a good girl?”

The mutt yipped and sat, tail wagging. She was skinny, black with white paws. Caitlin roughed her fur, then groaned to her feet.

She followed Shadow to the kitchen and filled her water bowl. The small house was warm against the foggy night. It was a rental in Rockridge, a Craftsman cottage behind a Father Knows Best picket fence. The Berkeley Hills rose behind it. The neighborhood was crowded, eclectic, heavy with fir trees and spilling ivy — which meant she was safely beyond the fire line. At least until the fire line burned its way downhill to her street.

In her bedroom she cleared her SIG and set it on the dresser. She shucked off her clothes and showered away the eau de meth head and the knots in her shoulders. She was pulling on clean jeans and a T‑shirt when she heard a knock on the front door and a key turning in the lock.

She leaned around the doorway and saw Sean Rawlins walking down the hall toward her. She exhaled.

Sean had just come off surveillance, but he didn’t take his eyes off of her. His stride was long and slow, boots clocking on the floor. His dark hair was windblown. His brown eyes were intense. His great-​great-​grandfather had ridden with the Chiricahua Apache into the Sierra Madre, and Caitlin thought of that look as Sean’s raider stare. The take‑no‑shit look he gave to suspects and car salesmen. She thought he was the best-​looking thing she’d ever seen.

The stare turned to a smile. He held up a bottle of tequila.

She laughed, took the bottle, and tossed back a swallow. Her chest heated. She blew out a breath.

“Perfect.”

She didn’t drink during the week — holidays, Warriors’ championships, and shots fired excepted.

“There’s more,” he said.

“Better be.”

He pulled her along the hall to the kitchen. On the counter sat a brown paper bag from a neighborhood taqueria.

“Praise Jesus,” Caitlin said.

They didn’t bother with plates but stood at the kitchen island bent over their tacos, spilling pico de gallo.

“There’s something else,” he said.

“Did I win the lotto?”

“You made the news.”

His voice, usually cool, took on an edge. He pulled up a video on his phone.

“Last thing I expected to see you carrying out of a crank house was a baby,” he said.

“You never know what’s behind door number three.”

The screen went bright, the late news, and yeah, there she was.

Maybe the Narcotics Task Force had alerted the media about the raid. Maybe reports of gunfire had brought them out. She forgot the food and watched herself at a weird remove.

Coming out the front door of the crank house, cradling a squalling infant. On‑screen, she blinked as though caught by surprise. She had been.

When she’d rounded the doorway into the upstairs bedroom at the raid house, she had been that close to firing. She could still feel the pressure of her finger on the trigger as she shouted at the room — and stopped dead.

Seeing the baby, only a few months old, trying to kick her way out from under the ratty blanket heaped on the floor. Window wide, cold air heaving in. Little fists clenched by her red face, chubby legs bicycling. Caitlin had holstered her gun and scooped her up. Stunned.

Just like she looked on the video. Under control, she’d told Rios. Like hell.

“For a little thing, she had a ton of fight in her. I hope that’s a good sign,” she said.

“Always,” Sean said. “Whether you’re twenty inches or five foot ten.”

She gave him an appreciative look, shut off the phone, and caught a view of herself in the window. Eyes too hot. She grabbed the tequila bottle and poured another shot. It burned less than the first.

She wound an arm around Sean’s waist and nodded at the ATF badge that hung on a chain around his neck.

“Off the clock,” she said.

He pulled it over his head and set it on the counter. Then he picked her up and set her on the counter too. She pulled him close. He smelled like soap and the outdoors.

“You got more to bring me tonight?” she said.

He smiled, and it looked like a wicked promise. She laughed. The remnants of her stress evaporated. She kissed him. Then wrapped her arms around his shoulders and kissed him some more. He ran his fingers into her hair, tilted her head back, and kissed her neck.

Headlights swept past the window. She slid off the counter, hanging on to him, and reached to close the shutters. A car door slammed.

They paused. Turned to the window. Outside, an Alameda County sheriff ’s car had pulled to the curb.

They looked at each other. A cop car was never a good sign, not even at a cop’s house. A heavy knock sounded.

She opened the door to the cold night.

The plainclothes officer who stood there looked like so many older cops who hung on to the job until somebody told them it was time to retire. Jowls and a slouch. His grim expression said that something was seriously wrong.

“Detective Hendrix. I need you to come with me.”

***

The drive took a long, portentous hour, out of the city and into the dark countryside. Neither of them spoke. The headlights swept across empty fields until they rounded a bend into a frenzied bubble of red and blue. The stretch of highway where the car finally stopped was desolate. The flashing lights illuminated cornfields. A police helicopter hovered overhead. A dozen cops were in motion on the ground.

Caitlin stepped out into a cold wind. Here, the night sky was clear. Two steps from the car she could feel the tension hanging thick in the air.

She recognized the man waiting for her at the edge of the road. Backlit by swinging flashlights, coat flapping in the downwash from the helicopter, Senior Homicide Sergeant Joe Guthrie watched her approach. Hands at his sides. Breath steaming the air. Lean and sharp, with deep-​set dark eyes, he had the wiry alertness of a fox. He was known as a methodical investigator who patiently probed for weaknesses and, when he found them, ripped your throat out.

He watched her carefully as she walked toward him. Measuring her. She took a deep breath and returned his steady gaze.

“There’s something you need to see,” he said.

Caitlin understood what that something almost certainly was. She signed the crime scene log‑in sheet and steeled herself. She had seen bodies before, in the autopsy suite and in the wreckage of head‑on collisions and on grimy kitchen floors, a husband bleeding out from a knife wound while his wife fought against the handcuffs, screaming, He deserved it, the cocksucker. Death came in numberless forms, and she could deal with all of them.

They pushed through rustling cornstalks until they came to a small clearing. The searchlight from the helicopter swept overhead. Guthrie stepped aside to show her what lay at the center of the clearing.

It was a young woman. Her skin was paper white, her hair matted red with dried blood. She had been strangled.

The bullwhip that had choked the life out of her was twisted tightly around her neck. Red lash marks welted her arms and face, furious stripes. Her blouse, shredded by the whip, lay open, exposing the symbol pounded into her chest with shining nails.

Caitlin turned away and doubled over. She caught herself and stayed there for a long time, her hands on her knees, her eyes closed. She had to will herself to breathe.

“Detective,” Guthrie said.

His voice came to her as if she were down a hundred-foot well. The night smelled of dirt and iron.

It’s impossible, she told herself. But she felt every nightmare she’d ever had, roaring to life at once. He disappeared years ago. Decades.

She opened her eyes and turned to see it. To prove to herself that it was real. That same symbol, pounded into another victim’s flesh. His symbol. His madness. The Prophet.

The victim’s face was dusty and streaked from dried tears. The thin trails of blood that ran from the nails meant she was still alive when they were pounded into her. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-​five.

Caitlin peered into the woman’s dead eyes. Flat blue. She could feel Guthrie standing right behind her. He was watching her closely. Watching her reaction. She shut her eyes so she wouldn’t see the victim’s face, but an aftereffect imprinted it on her retinas. Her throat closed and light-​headed sorrow swooped through her. She fought it down. All of it, until she could finally speak.

“Where’s the other body?”

“Look, we don’t know it’s him,” Guthrie said. “It could be a copycat.”

“Did he phone the family?”

“That’s how we knew where to find her.”

Lock it down, she thought. Don’t think about her family right now. Deal with the scene.

But she couldn’t. It was all coming back to her, everything she knew about the Prophet. The way he’d take two victims at a time and pose them in grotesque scenes, like mannequins in display windows from hell. The way he’d etch his signature into their flesh: the ancient sign for Mercury, messenger of the gods, guide to the underworld. He sliced it into one victim with a box cutter and poured liquid mercury into the wound.

“Where’s the note?” she said.

Guthrie hesitated.

“There was always a note,” she said.

Guthrie called to a nearby officer, who brought an evidence bag. The officer held it up for Caitlin. Behind the thick red sealing strip, inside the clear plastic, was a single sheet of white paper. Caitlin read the handwritten message.

All these years you thought I was gone. But
hell and heaven turn and turn again.
Angels fall, the messenger descends,
your insolence is harrowed, defiance ends. You
wail in fury, but the
Equinox delivers pain. It batters like a
hurricane. Tremble now — you cannot hide.

She read it slowly, twice, forcing the words to stop jumping in her vision. The wind chilled her. But the Equinox delivers pain.

It was him.

*******

This is an excerpt from UNSUB, reprinted with the permission of Penguin Random House and the author. UNSUB by Meg Gardiner publishes on June 27, 2017. For more information, visit MegGardiner.com.

MEG GARDINER is the author of twelve critically acclaimed novels, including China Lake, which won the Edgar Award. Originally from Santa Barbara, California, she lives in Austin, Texas.