In southern Texas, on Saturday nights, women are disappearing. One vanishes from a movie theater. Another, from her car at a stoplight. A mother is ripped from her home while checking on her baby. Rookie FBI agent Caitlin Hendrix, newly assigned to the FBI's elite Behavioral Analysis Unit, fears that a serial killer is roaming the dark roads outside Austin.
Caitlin's unit discovers the first victim's body in the woods, laid out in a bloodstained white baby-doll nightgown. A second victim in a white nightie lies deeper in the forest's darkness. Around the bodies, Polaroid photos are stuck in the earth like headstones, picturing other women with their wrists slashed. The women in the woods are not the killer's first victims, nor are they likely to be his last.
To track the UNSUB, Caitlin must get inside his mind; he is a confident, meticulous killer, capable of charming his victims until their guard is down, snatching them in plain sight. He then plays out a twisted fantasy—turning them into dolls for him to possess, control, and ultimately destroy. Caitlin's profile leads the FBI to focus on one man: a charismatic, successful professional who easily gains people's trust. But can they apprehend him before it's too late? As Saturday night approaches, Caitlin and the FBI enter a desperate game of cat and mouse, racing to capture the cunning predator before he claims his next victim.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Meg Gardiner
The cry pierced the walls, ringing through the darkness. Shana Kerber roused and squinted at the clock. Twelve forty five A.M.
Her voice came as a sigh. "Already:"
Shana huddled for a minute under the comforter, clinging wish fully to warmth and sleep. Hush yourself, Jaydee. Please. But the baby's crying intensified. It was her strong, wide awake, I'm hungry cry.
The night was bitter. Early February, the north wind scouring Texas. It whistled through the cracks in the farmhouse, rattling the doors in their frames. Shana rolled over. The other side of the bed was cool. Brandon wasn't home yet.
For a few more seconds Shana lay still, aching with fatigue, hoping Jaydee would quiet. But she was crying to beat the band. Ten months old and still up twice a night. Shana's mom swore things would get easier. She'd been swearing so for months. When, Mom? Please, when?
"Coming, baby," Shana murmured.
She tossed back the covers, brushed her sleep tangled hair from her face, and slogged out of the bedroom. The hardwood floor creaked beneath her bare feet. Jaydee's cries grew clearer.
Six feet down the hall, she slowed. The crying wasn't coming from the nursery.
The house was completely dark. Jaydee was too little to climb out of her crib.
Shana turned on the hall light. The nursery door was open.
A sliver of ice seemed to slide through her chest. At the far end of the hall she could see into the living room. On the sofa, half lit by the hall light, a stranger sat holding her little girl on his lap.
The icy sliver sank through Shana. "What are you doing here?'
"Don't worry. I'm a friend of your husband." The man's face was in shadow. His voice was soothing-almost warm. "She was crying. Didn't want to wake you."
He seemed completely relaxed. Shana walked slowly to the living room. She glanced out the front window. The moon was full. An SUV was parked outside. A placard hung from the rearview mirror.
"Is that…" She looked him up and down. "Army? Are you ..."
The baby twisted in the man's arms. He bounced her. "She's quite the little doll."
He tickled Jaydee and made baby talk. Shana tried harder to see his face. His eyes remained in shadow. Something stopped her from turning on the table lamp.
Is he a friend of Brandon's?
Shana extended her hands. "I’ll take her."
The wind battered the windows. The man's smile persisted. Though she couldn't see his eyes, Shana had a gut certainty that he was watching her.
She edged forward. She was eight feet from him. Out of his reach. "Give Jaydee to me."
Her hands were open. "Please."
Jaydee twisted in the man's arms. Her chubby legs pumped like pistons. Shana's heart thundered. She saw the power in the man's hands and knew she couldn't simply charge at him.
The shotgun was under her bed. Five seconds was what it would take to run to the bedroom, grab it, and rush back down the hall. It was a twelve gauge. It was loaded.
And it was useless, because this man was holding her child to his chest. Her breathing caught, like a cloth snagging on a nail.
She inched forward. "Give her here."
For a few seconds, he continued bouncing Jaydee. Crying, the little girl reached starfish fingers toward Shana.
"She wants her mama," the man said. "Aww, come here."
Shana held still, her own arms outstretched. "Give me my baby."
The smile stiffened. The man set Jaydee gently beside him on the sofa.
Before Shana could inhale, he lowered his shoulders, gathering himself. He was in motion when the light finally hit his eyes.
The dashboard clock read one thirty A.M. when Brandon Kerber turned into the gravel driveway. The truck bounced over the ruts, stereo blasting Chris Stapleton. Brandon whistled along. His rare Saturday night out had been golden-a Spurs game in San Antonio with friends from his army days. He curved past the stand of cedars and the house came into view.
The front door was open.
Brandon gunned the F-150 up to the house. The windows reflected the truck's headlights like wild eyes. He jumped out. In the wind, the door was banging back against the wall. An acid taste burned his throat. Banging that loud should have woken Shana up. Inside the darkened house, he heard a mournful sound.
Brandon rushed in. The living room was cold. The headlights threw his shadow ahead of him on the floor like a blade. The crying kept up. It was the baby.
Jaydee lay huddled on the floor. He scooped her up. "Shana?"
He hit a light switch. The living room lit up, neat, clean, and empty. Jaydee's eyes were red rimmed. She was exhausted from sobbing. He pulled her to his chest. Her cries diminished to pathetic hiccups.
Brandon ran to the bedroom with the baby and flipped on the light. He spun and strode down the hall, looking in the nursery. In the kitchen. The garage. The back porch.
Nothing. Shana was gone.
He stood in the living room, clutching Jaydee, telling himself, She's here. I just can't see her.
But the truth closed in on him. Shana had vanished.
She was the fifth.
Early morning shadows slashed the road. The sun blazed gold through the pines. Caitlin Hendrix accelerated and swung her Highlander into the grounds of the FBI Academy in Quantico.
Beneath her black winter coat, her credentials were clipped to the left side of her belt. Her Glock 19M was holstered on the right. The text on her phone read, Solace, Texas.
Caitlin got out, and the freezing wind lifted her auburn hair off her shoulders. The Virginia winter constantly reminded her she was an outsider here. She liked it that way. It kept her on her toes.
She buzzed through the door and headed for the Behavioral Analysis Unit.
Suspected serial abductions, the text read.
The people Caitlin passed walked faster than the detectives she'd worked with back at the Alameda Sheriffs Office. They turned corners more crisply. She missed her Bay Area colleagues-missed their pride and camaraderie. But she loved seeing FBI on her creds, with the words Special Agent beneath her name.
Phones rang. Beyond the windows, the blue glass walls of the FBI Laboratory complex reflected the rising sun.
Caitlin approached her desk in BAU 4, where she was currently one of eight agents and analysts assigned to Crimes Against Adults. She said good morning to her colleagues as they arrived. Everyone had received the same text.
The Behavioral Analysis Unit was a department of the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime-a branch of the Critical Incident Response Group. Its mission involved investigating unusual or repetitive violent crimes. Critical incident response meant that when a hot case came to the BAU, it acted, and fast, because time was limited and people were in danger.
She barely had time to take off her coat before an office door opened at the far end of the room.
"Don't get comfortable."
People looked over. Special Agent in Charge C.J. Emmerich strode toward them.
"Five women have disappeared from Gideon County, Texas, in the last six months. The latest was two nights ago," he said. "The victims have all vanished on a Saturday night. And the period between abductions is diminishing."
Emmerich's gaze swept the room and landed on Caitlin.
"Escalation," she said.
His nod was brief. "Commonalities between the abductions indicate that we're dealing with a single offender. Someone who's growing bolder, more confident."
Emmerich was her official mentor as an agent-in training. A legendary profiler, he radiated such self discipline that it unsettled her. Solemn, intense, he attacked cases like a hawk attacks prey. When he swooped in for a kill, his talons were sharp.
"The Gideon County Sheriff’s Office has requested our assistance," he said.
His assistant stood and passed out file folders. Caitlin flipped through hers.
Escalation. She scanned the pages in the file, looking for exactly what that word meant in this case.
She was no longer a raw rookie but was still finding her feet as a criminal profiler. She had a cop's experience and instincts; she was learning to interpret crime scene evidence, forensics, and victimology to build a picture of a perpetrator. Profiling was based on the insight that everything at a crime scene tells a story and reveals something about the criminal. The BAU studied offender behavior to uncover how they thought, predict how they would escalate-and apprehend them before they could put any others in danger.
"The victims have been taken from public places and their own homes," Emmerich said. "No witnesses, and so far, no probative forensic evidence. As the sheriff put it, they simply vanished."
Vanished. Caitlin's eye was drawn to the composite sketch pinned above her desk.
White male, late twenties. The sketch caught his slit-eyed stare and casual menace. He had walked past her in a California biker bar. Later, in a dark tunnel, he'd crucified her hand with a nail gun.
The Bureau's facial recognition software couldn't identify him. He was the Ghost: a killer, a betrayer, a hiss in the wiring. He had helped the serial killer known as the Prophet murder seven people, including her father.
He'd promised they would meet again. She was waiting for his call.
But that couldn't rate her attention this morning.
She turned a page in the file folder and saw a photo: a woman in her mid-twenties, only a few years younger than she was. Lively eyes, a self-assured smile, halo gold hair.
Shana Kerber. Caitlin lingered on the photo, wishing she could tell her, Hold on. People are searching for you.
"It's been twenty nine hours since the latest abduction," Emmerich said. "The locals need us on scene while there's still a significant chance to find this victim alive. And if we can find her, maybe there's a chance to save the others."
He pointed at Caitlin and another agent. Caitlin's pulse kicked up a beat.
"Grab your go bags. Flight leaves Dulles for Austin at ten thirty."