“Don’t miss it. This is a great one!” Stephen King
Soon to be an Amazon TV series
I am the legion of the night …
He appears in the darkness like a ghost, made of shadows and fearthe Midnight Man. He comes for the parents but leaves the children alive, tiny witnesses to unspeakable horror. The bedroom communities of Los Angeles are gripped with dread, and the attacks are escalating.
Still reeling from her best friend’s close call in a bombing six months ago, FBI behavioral analyst Caitlin Hendrix has come to Los Angeles to assist in the Midnight Man investigation and do what she does besthunt a serial killer. Her work is what keeps her going, but something about this UNSUBunknown subjectdoesn’t sit right. She soon realizes that this case will test not only her skills but also her dedication, for within the heart of a killer lives a secret that mirrors Caitlin’s own past. Hesitancy is not an option, but will she be able to do what must be done if the time comes?
Tense and impactful, Edgar Award winner Meg Gardiner’s latest UNSUB thriller will leave you on the edge of your seat until its riveting conclusion.
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About the Author
Meg Gardiner is the author of a number of critically acclaimed novels, including the Evan Delaney series, of which China Lake won the Edgar Award.
Read an Excerpt
Caitlin Hendrix thundered down the off-ramp hard past the speed limit, into the smoke. The haze obscured the skyline and hung a red pall in the morning sky above the Berkeley Hills. Nine hours after the blast, Temescal Hospital was still burning.
On the radio, reports were grim. "Oakland authorities confirm multiple fatalities ..."
Caitlin punched the steering wheel. "Goddammit."
She slewed to a stop in the hospital parking lot and her skin turned cold. Ladder trucks ringed the building, spraying stubborn hives of flame. Search-and-rescue teams combed the smoldering ruins of the ER with dogs, hunting for trapped survivors.
"Latest in a string of bombings that spans the country ..."
Caitlin jumped from the car and was blinded by acrid smoke. At the yellow perimeter tape a police officer raised a hand to keep her back.
She flashed her FBI credentials. "ATF?"
The patrolman pointed toward the hospital's crumbled façade. "They went in."
She ducked under the tape and ran. The ER entrance was a gaping hole half-choked by debris. She climbed over unstable slabs of concrete and rebar, picking her way through. The wind gusted. Ash flicked her face, hot.
It seemed impossible that anybody could have escaped this place alive.
From the eddying smoke, a specter emerged. A red bandanna was tied around his face. A badge hung from his neck. ATF — the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Caitlin scrambled through the rubble toward him. Sean Rawlins saw her and his shoulders dropped. Her throat went dry with dread.
Her best friend had been on duty as a nurse in the Temescal ER when the bomb exploded. Michele Ferreira — whom Caitlin had been trying to reach for hours. Michele was the reason she'd flown all night from DC to get here.
"She's not answering her cell," Sean had said on the phone, his voice like broken glass. "Nobody knows."
The attack on Temescal was a massive escalation in the bomber's campaign. It was a devastating turn in a case Sean had been working for months. And it had done more than bring disaster to the East Bay. Because Michele was more than Caitlin's friend. She was Sean's ex-wife. The mother of his little girl.
Caitlin grabbed Sean's arms. He was dirty and hollow-eyed. A tremor ran through her.
He pulled down the bandanna. "They found her."
His voice was raw. Caitlin's heart fisted.
Behind him shadows solidified from the smoke. A search-and-rescue team emerged from the ER, their hard hats and yellow vests filthy. They were lugging a basket stretcher.
In it, unmoving, lay a small woman in raspberry scrubs. Her shirt, her face, her crow-black hair, were caked with concrete dust and matted with blood. The rescue team hadn't bothered to cover her broken form with a sheet.
Grief raked Caitlin's throat. Her friend was shattered, her skin the gray of a stone angel.
Then Michele's chest rose.
"Oh, my God," Caitlin said.
Sean nodded. "Come on."
Her heart gunning, Caitlin clambered through the rubble ahead of the rescue team, checking step by step for stability.
"Follow my path," she said.
Sean grabbed the stretcher's side rail to help steady it. A mass-casualty triage unit was set up across the parking lot. They rushed toward it, tears burning Caitlin's eyes.
"Michele," she whispered. Forgive me for ignoring you. Forgive me for doubting you. Forgive me for waiting to reach out until you were already in the maelstrom of blood and fire.
When the rescue team set the stretcher down, paramedics swarmed. A nurse and trauma doc swooped in. They waved Sean and Caitlin back. From the bottom of an ocean, Caitlin heard Red tag — the triage term for patients who were in danger of death without immediate treatment.
She grabbed Sean's hand. She rarely prayed, and never aloud, but heard herself saying, "God — help her. Do it now."
Michele coughed. The doctor said, "You're safe, you're out." He gave Sean a look, concerned but calm and competent. Got this.
Sean seemed to unspool, and he relinquished responsibility to the medical crew.
"Michele," Caitlin said. "Breathe, girl. Stay with us."
Briefly, Michele opened her eyes. Her gaze reeled, but she found Caitlin and Sean. As the trauma team beetled around her, she lifted a hand and spread her fingers. Reaching. Letting them know she was there.
Caitlin raised a fist. "Fight, Michele. Fight."
Michele squeezed her eyes shut.
Sean slipped his fingers between Caitlin's. She clutched his hand. Then grabbed him and held him tightly.
"She's going to make it. Understand? She is," she said.
"No question." He clasped her to his chest. "No chance in hell she won't."
Throat scored with dust and ash, for a moment Sean sounded overwhelmed. Then he took a long breath, and Caitlin felt his fury distill. He peered at the smoldering hospital.
"It's in there. Somewhere. The key." His voice once again had glass in it. But not shattered. Sharp. "I'm going to find it. And I'm going to get this bastard."
Ragged joy, relief, and savage purpose filled her. "You are."
He took her face in his hands and pressed his forehead to hers.
"Thank you for coming. Thank you for getting here."
He smelled of smoke and sweat. She kissed him roughly and tightened her arms around him.
The sun hung red in the air. The question hung between them.
Did the Ghost do this?CHAPTER 2
Winter, two a.m., and a Santa Ana wind was scouring Los Angeles. Hot and gritty, it keened over skyscrapers, through canyons and barrios, past the Hollywood sign, over flickering holiday lights, along the freeways, across the rippling surf. And through him. It sharpened his vision and clear-cut his path.
The neighborhood spread across the hillside like a fungus. Below him the lights of the San Fernando Valley prickled in the black air. The moon slicked the sky, whitewashing the street. He paused the music and pulled out the earbuds. The rivet-gun beat of Ministry's "Stigmata" evaporated. The hiss of the 101 freeway replaced it.
The road noise obscured his footsteps. The moonlight cast his shadow on the grass as he crossed the lawn. Thin, silent, smooth. His shadow — the only companion he could trust. As black as his baseball cap. His hoodie. Jeans. Gloves.
Light on his feet, he strolled around the side of the house, dragging his fingers along the stucco.
He found the open window at the back.
He stood for a minute. The night and the wind filled him with command. He licked his lips. His knife sliced the window screen. His shadow invaded the house before the rest of him.
The Christmas tree was a dark pyramid in the living room corner. Presents hid beneath it, wrapping paper quicksilver in the moonlight. He absorbed the stillness. An electric hiss seemed to saturate the air.
He sheathed his knife. His shadow slid past framed photos hanging in the hallway. Family fun shots. Fathermother. Grannygramps. At the end of the hall he paused and nudged wide a door.
In the master bedroom a man and woman lay asleep, shadows and headlights skittering over them as cars passed on the freeway. The couple's heads were barely visible on their pillows. Hiding. (Not any more. I found you. I know what you are.) He raised the gun.
It felt weightless in his grip. Felt like truth.
It meant revelation. Here, inexorable, undeniable. The sweeping headlights gave him enough light to line up the front and rear sights.
He held for a second. Extending the moment, feeling the bubble expand toward the bursting point. In the bed, the sleeping man breathed.
Oh, no you don't. I saw that.
The blare of the gunshot jerked the woman awake. "Jesus, what ..."
She lurched like a shot dog. Sleep-drunk. Confused. She felt the hot blood that striped her cheeks. Touched her face. Looked at her husband.
"Andy — oh, God, what is ..."
She turned, saw him, and stopped. He could be no more than a shadow at the foot of the bed. The Undoing.
He tracked the pistol and lined up the sights again.
She stumbled from the bed, hand out to ward him off. "No —" He squeezed the trigger.
As the echo of gunfire faded, he exhaled. Silence swelled. Told you.
They had seen. Showed you. He soaked in the sight for one final second.
Down the hall, a voice called out. It was small and tentative.
The intruder turned. In the darkened hall stood a young boy. First grade, maybe. Flannel pajama bottoms and what looked, in the thin moonlight, like a Star Wars T-shirt.
The intruder sauntered out of the parents' room toward him. The boy dashed into a bedroom and slammed the door.
The intruder slid along the hallway, gun barrel dragging on the wall, shadow wiping the photos. Fathermother. Babybrother. Here, kiddie kiddie.
The bedroom door was flimsy particle board. The house was flimsy suburbia. He jammed the gun in the waistband of his jeans, raised his boot, and kicked the door open. It broke like Styrofoam.
The lightless room looked empty. He walked in, took a slow look around, strolled to the far side of the bed and back. The silence was distorted now — by breathing. He crossed the room and threw open the closet door.
Inside, the boy crouched in a ball. He was hugging his sister.
Their eyes, staring at him in the moonlight, were enormous.CHAPTER 3
When Caitlin climbed from the FBI Suburban, a bloodshot sun hung between the palm trees. The street sloped toward to the 101 freeway and the checkerboard sprawl of the San Fernando Valley. The mountains at the valley's far edge were brown, furrowed, and under the blowing Santa Anas, shockingly clear. Mid-December, and it was in the high seventies. Caitlin's black suit absorbed the heat. Her auburn hair wraithed around her shoulders.
Her colleagues from the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit got out and shut the Suburban's doors with a hard clack. They'd driven here straight from LAX. Unit Chief CJ Emmerich and Special Agent Brianne Rainey regarded the house.
Police tape batted on the porch. Emmerich, spare and angular, panned the property, the street, the neighborhood. His suit jacket flared like a wing in the wind.
"No trees in front. House is completely exposed," he said.
Rainey set her hands on her hips. "How'd the killer see it? As a juicy target? Asking for what he wanted to dish out?" Rainey's gaze, smooth and cool, took in the house with seeming dispassion. Her voice was calm, her bearing even, her clothes chic, braids pulled into a high chignon. But Caitlin sensed Rainey steeling herself for what lay inside.
"He slunk in the back," Caitlin said. "He saw but wanted to remain unseen."
The front door opened, and two LAPD detectives stepped onto the porch. They were from the Homicide Special Section of the Robbery-Homicide Division and were the ones who had requested the BAU's assistance. The BAU usually consulted on cases from Quantico. But Robbery-Homicide had gotten Emmerich, a legendary profiler, to jump on a cross-country flight with two of his agents. Receiving a call from such heavy hitters — detectives who handled mass murders, serial slayings, and LA's highest-profile killings — meant the case was a five- alarm fire.
Caitlin shot her cuffs. "Into the breach."
They walked toward the crime scene and the LAPD detectives came into the afternoon sun. The older of the two extended his hand.
"Dave Solis. Appreciate you coming so quickly."
Solis was in his early forties, solid, his white dress shirt bleach-bright in the harsh daylight. His partner seemed to squint against its glare as she shook their hands.
Weisbach was as slight as a yellow jacket. Her curls were shoveled atop her head. Her face was grim.
The house was chillingly quiet. The patrol cars, the ambulance, the medical examiner, and the crime scene unit had been and gone. Door jambs, walls, and the windowsill in the living room were sooty with fingerprint powder. The window, the killer's entry point, faced the patio and back fence. Emmerich paused to evaluate it. The small yard was enclosed by white oleander.
Caitlin stopped beside him. "Hedge, fence, single-story homes on all three sides. Coming in that window, the intruder wouldn't have been visible from any neighboring houses."
Emmerich checked out the Christmas tree. Presents were arrayed beneath it. "Looks undisturbed."
Solis grunted. "Theft doesn't seem to have been the primary objective."
They turned toward the hallway. Though the lights were on, it resembled a forbidding tunnel. Solis led the way.
The bodies had been removed from the master bedroom. Their blood remained. It covered the bed. It soaked one of the pillows, red drying to brown, with a watery ring along the stain's outer edges. It splattered the headboard. Caitlin tried to absorb the scene impassively. The iron tang in the air made that viscerally impossible.
Emmerich stood in the doorway to get a broad vantage on the room. "Same MO as the first two attacks?"
Weisbach nodded and pointed at the coagulated blood on the pillow. "Husband was shot first. Andrew McKinley. Then the wife."
"Did the killer take anything besides their wedding rings?"
"Don't know yet," Solis said. "House wasn't ransacked. Killer left jewelry, cash, phones, laptops. Car keys. But relatives haven't been able to bring themselves to look at photos of the scene, much less to walk through the house and tell us if anything's missing."
Solis' voice was deep and surprisingly gentle. He rounded the bed to indicate a smear on the hardwood floor. "We think he stepped in Daphne McKinley's blood when he approached her body to take the ring. Then wiped the shoeprint off the floor. And off his shoe."
"With?" Emmerich said.
"A corner of Mrs. McKinley's nightgown."
Solis peered around the gloomy room. Yellow light filtered through opaque shades. The windows faced the street, and the police didn't want anyone to get a look inside.
Solis' shoulders looked laden. He had ashy circles beneath his eyes. "If he took anything else, we haven't found evidence of it. No fingerprints, no blood smears on dresser drawers, jewelry boxes, cabinets."
Same MO. The McKinley murders were the killer's third attack in Los Angeles County in two months. All late-night home invasions. Robberies that opened with double murder. Male-female couples: two married, one long-term partners.
Rainey stepped out of the room into the hall. A dozen framed photos glinted dully on the wall. Halfway down, a smashed bedroom door dangled from a broken hinge.
Drawing a slow breath, she walked toward the doorway. When Caitlin caught up, they pushed the broken door fully open.
The bedroom belonged to a little girl. Pink accents, American Girl dolls. A globe on a bookshelf.
Rainey's voice was tight. "The children?"
Detective Weisbach drew near. "With their grandparents."
Caitlin stepped inside. The air felt cold. The closet door gaped open. Above the bed, long scratches striped the wall. They looked like the claw marks of an unearthly wolf, ripping into the house from another dimension. The iron tang again reached her nose. The claw marks had been drawn in blood.
She turned to Rainey. "We need to talk to those kids."CHAPTER 4
A towering Christmas tree dominated the grandparents' San Fernando Valley home. Its gleaming cheer was smothered by the airless grief in the living room. The grandmother sat on the edge of a wingback chair, a soggy tissue clenched in her fist. She hunched as if she'd been punched in the chest. But she watched Caitlin and Rainey with a black-powder stare, ready to fire on them if they asked questions she objected to. Caitlin couldn't blame her.
The children sat side by side on a sofa. Noah and Natalie McKinley were six-year-old twins. Brown hair, sturdy limbs, gleaming eyes. Silent.
Caitlin assessed the kids' emotional temperature, caught Rainey's eye, and signaled: You lead. Rainey pulled a dining room chair next to the sofa and sat down, close but not crowding the children. Her tone was tender.
"Tell me what you saw. What you heard."
Noah's shoulders bunched inside his Batman T-shirt. He stared at the floor. A jet passed overhead on approach to Burbank Airport.
"I know it's scary to remember," Rainey said. "But you were very brave. You helped your sister."
She glanced at the little girl. Natalie was holding a stuffed bear, squeezing it repeatedly, almost rhythmically. Trying to soothe herself, Caitlin thought.
Softly she said, "You can tell Agent Rainey whatever you're thinking about. Anything at all."
Noah eyed Rainey with something like suspicion, maybe disbelief. But Rainey's gaze was direct and genuine. Caitlin knew her as forthright and incisive. Ex–Air Force, she was one of a rare number of female African American FBI special agents. Whether in the field or an inter- rogation room, she was commanding.
And she was the mother of twin boys herself. Her way with kids was completely natural. Even at such a wrenching moment, she was calm, warm, and respectful. Caitlin hung back. She had a good rapport with children — she was close to Sean's daughter — but she wasn't a mother herself. She let Rainey attempt to work her empathetic magic.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Dark Corners of the Night"
Copyright © 2020 Meg Gardiner.
Excerpted by permission of Blackstone Publishing.
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