Caitlin Hendrix has been a Narcotics detective for six months when the killer at the heart of all her childhood nightmares reemerges: the Prophet. An UNSUB—what the FBI calls an unknown subject—the Prophet terrorized the Bay Area in the 1990s and nearly destroyed her father, the lead investigator on the case.
The Prophet’s cryptic messages and mind games drove Detective Mack Hendrix to the brink of madness, and Mack’s failure to solve the series of ritualized murders—eleven seemingly unconnected victims left with the ancient sign for Mercury etched into their flesh—was the final nail in the coffin for a once promising career.
Twenty years later, two bodies are found bearing the haunting signature of the Prophet. Caitlin Hendrix has never escaped the shadow of her father’s failure to protect their city. But now the ruthless madman is killing again and has set his sights on her, threatening to undermine the fragile barrier she rigidly maintains for her own protection, between relentless pursuit and dangerous obsession.
Determined to decipher his twisted messages and stop the carnage, Caitlin ignores her father’s warnings as she draws closer to the killer with each new gruesome murder. Is it a copycat, or can this really be the same Prophet who haunted her childhood? Will Caitlin avoid repeating her father’s mistakes and redeem her family name, or will chasing the Prophet drag her and everyone she loves into the depths of the abyss?
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Weapon at her side, eyes on the night, Caitlin approached the house. Fog clung to the ground, rolling thick off San Francisco Bay. It hid the stars, their faces, the view beyond.
Silently they climbed the steps to the broad porch. The March chill weeviled down Caitlin's arms. By the doorbell a faded sticker announced that jesus saves, but Caitlin saw no evidence of it. Not tonight, she thought. Tonight, he didn't get the call.
They stacked up beside the door. Behind drawn blinds, a television burbled. Intel suggested that six people were inside. But suggested didn't mean confirmed.
Caitlin's heart beat hard against her ballistic vest. Beneath it she wore a T-shirt, jeans, and work boots. Her auburn hair was tucked beneath a ball cap. Her nerves were tuned to an ultrahigh frequency, adrenaline crackling through her like static, waiting for the sign.
The raid leader held up a fist. The team stilled.
Rios was an Oakland Police Department sergeant, built like a furnace in black tactical gear. He glanced at them over his shoulder: Oakland Police, San Francisco PD, Alameda County. Caitlin's vest said sheriff. Her ball cap said narcotics task force. They gave him a thumbs-up.
The moments before, the suspense, always fried her. Anticipation was hell. The hateful uncertainty. The house was two-story, decrepit, secretly humming with danger. Caitlin hugged the stucco wall, SIG Sauer warm in her hand. At her back, a young Alameda sheriff's deputy named Marston thrummed with apprehension. Come on, she thought. Jesus might not get the call tonight, but we're here. Let's move.
Rios raised his semiautomatic rifle and pounded on the door. "Police."
A dog barked. The TV droned. Rios drew back his arm to pound on the door again.
A gunshot from inside blew splinters across the porch.
The static in Caitlin's nerves resolved to a clear tone. Here we go.
Inside the house, feet pounded. Men yelled. Rios tested the doorknob. Locked. He signaled the fourth man in the stack, an Oakland cop who held the Little Pig.
Caitlin braced for more gunfire. The Oakland cop, Hillyer, rounded them and aimed the Little Pig at the dead bolt. The scaled-down shotgun was loaded with a breaching round. He fired from an inch away. The dead bolt assembly blew into the house and Hillyer stepped aside. The door yawned open. The Master Key-it worked on any lock.
Rios said, "Go, go." Rifle to his shoulder, he led the formation in.
The lights were dim, the floor warped. Tight and fluid, they swept into the hall. Rios aimed ahead, then to the right.
"Right clear," he said.
Caitlin stepped to the left, pistol level. Checked her sector. "Left clear."
The hall reeked of sulfur and ammonia. At the back of the house, a battering ram smashed open the rear door.
Marston stepped past her, checked his sector. "Clear."
They closed up behind Rios, left hands on the shoulder of the person in front of them, and advanced to the wide doorway to the living room. Rios pointed. Go. He swung in.
"Drop it," he yelled.
A gun clattered to the floor.
Caitlin came in behind him. Again she checked her sector. Rios yelled, "Get down," and peripherally she saw a man drop to his knees. She said, "Left clear." Rios kicked a handgun away from the suspect and held his rifle on him while Marston and Hillyer swept the room.
Down the hall, men shouted. Footsteps raced back and forth.
Rios pointed at Caitlin and Marston and put two fingers to his eyes. "Kitchen. Go."
Caitlin returned to the hall. At the far end, men grabbed stacks of cash and fled with officers in pursuit. She advanced toward the kitchen door, weapon level, finger on the trigger. Her pulse pounded in her ears. The kid, Marston, closed up behind her.
His breath warmed her neck. She was taller than he was, five-ten, and, for the moment, a shield. In another room, someone shouted and slammed into a wall.
"Clear," an officer shouted.
The stench of ammonia burned her throat. At the threshold she stopped, concealed. Heard nothing from the kitchen. Marston's hand grabbed her shoulder. She nodded: Ready to clear the room. He squeezed: I'll be right behind you. They moved together.
She swung through the door with Marston on her heels, peripherally checking the gap between the door and the frame. Vision pulsing, SIG sweeping the room. She immediately stepped out of the doorway. The fatal funnel, path of most bullets.
"Right clear," she said.
Marston went around her. "Left clear."
Crusted dishes covered the counter. On the table sat a money scale, colorful currency straps, and a pile of cash. A trail of twenty-dollar bills wafted across the linoleum in the clammy breeze blowing through the window. The screen had been punched out. It looked like a quick getaway.
A shiver climbed Caitlin's arms. She hated having a doorway behind her. Even though the team had cleared the hall, a door always felt like a hungry mouth at her back.
And the window opened to darkness. To anyone outside, she and Marston were brightly lit targets.
Marston's knuckles were white on his gun. He was waiting for the all clear.
Beneath the chemical stench hung the reek of sweat. She eyed the darkness outside, a pantry in the corner of the room, and the twenties on the floor. The money didn't actually lead in a trail to the window.
Marston stepped toward the table. Outside, the dog barked again.
Caitlin raised her left hand, fisted. "Stop . . ."
The pantry door flew open. A man lunged out.
Shirtless, strung out, he charged toward the table. A butcher knife gleamed in his right hand. Caitlin turned to put him in her sights.
Marston was directly beyond him in her line of fire.
Screeching, the man drove the knife forward.
She launched at him, a flying dive, and tackled him around the chest. He was ripe with sour sweat. Twenties were falling from his pockets. They hit the kitchen table and slid across it. Twitching eyes. Blackened teeth. Clawing hands. She worked the momentum and rolled, flinging him with her to the floor. He shrieked like a smoke alarm.
She flipped him facedown and subdued him with a wristlock, forcing his head into the linoleum, knee shoved against his elbow. Marston stood above her, eyes on his own chest. The knife jutted from his ballistic vest.
Rios came through the door, weapon raised. He stopped at the sight of Marston and of the man thrashing under Caitlin's grip amid broken dishes and crumpled cash.
Marston pulled the knife from his vest. "All clear."
Rios lowered his rifle. "The guy pop out of the toaster?"
Caitlin handcuffed the man and pulled him to his feet. "It's the meth fairy. Tweakerbell."
Rios's eyes didn't match his light tone.
"Under control," she said.
Marston touched his vest, wincing like his ribs were bruised. Rios told him to bag the knife for evidence and take the suspect into custody. As Marston led him away, Hillyer appeared in the doorway.
"House is clear," he said.
Caitlin followed Rios into the hall. The yelling and running had stopped. In the living room three men sat cuffed on the floor, backs against the wall. The SFPD officers were counting bags of crystal meth. She holstered her gun and exhaled.
Overhead came a noise. They all tilted their heads to the ceiling.
Rios pointed at Caitlin and Hillyer. "Upstairs. Two bedrooms. Go."
The tone in her head revved like a firehouse Klaxon. She didn't ask what the team had missed. She drew her gun again and led Hillyer down the dingy hallway. Her vest felt heavy. So did the SIG Sauer, in a two-handed combat grip. At the foot of the stairs, Hillyer put his hand on her shoulder. Steady. Together they climbed.
Upstairs they cleared the hall and first bedroom. The second bedroom door was half closed. From within came muffled sounds. Caitlin leveled the SIG. Not gonna get surprised again. Gonna be ready.
The sounds intensified. Almost a cry. She and Hillyer stopped outside the door. They had concealment but not cover, not if whoever was inside decided to shoot them through the plywood. She tried to slow her breathing. She nodded, Hillyer squeezed her shoulder, and she flowed through the door, gun aimed at the source of the sound.
"Sheriff. Don't move."
The crying intensified. Hillyer slid around her, his weapon swinging.
"Stop. Stop." She raised a fist. Grabbed Hillyer's vest. "Don't move. Don't breathe. Take your finger off the trigger." She lowered her gun. "Oh, my God."
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.
She didn't drink during the week-holidays, Warriors' championships, and shots fired excepted.
"There's more," he said.
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."
What People are Saying About This
'Sleep Destroyer' Meg Gardiner is up to her evil tricks again with UNSUB, a bracingly fresh serial-killer novel that hums like the third rail. It has all her trademarksa complex, compelling heroine, a jet-fueled story, and elegant, crisp prose. I blasted through it in a single sitting last night and remain conscious today only due to espresso and the half-life buzz of reading adrenaline. An entrancing and stunning thriller!
Like The Silence of the Lambs, this novel scared the hell out of me. I dare you to try putting it down The UNSUB, or unknown subject, at the heart of Meg Gardiner's thriller is terrifying.