Authors: James Patterson
My anxiety was simmering as my partner and I crossed the motel’s parking lot at dawn.
Dispatch had roused me an hour ago saying there’d been another murder at the Big Four Motel. Was it Susan Jones? Were we going to find her body hanging in a shower?
The motel looked subdued at sunrise. The homeless campers in the parking lot were dozing in their bags and rags, despite the sirens and flashers and squawking of car radios. Many of the motel guests had pulled on robes and jackets over their sleepwear and were grouped under the big orange awning in front of Tuohy’s office.
One of the uniformed officers approached us, introduced herself as Officer Joyce Birmingham, and said that she was the first officer on the scene.
She said, “Sergeant, we got the call at five and responded. The manager asked for you. Mr. Jake Tuohy. He said you and Inspector Conklin have some history here.”
Carly Myers’s body was still vivid in my mind. I asked Birmingham to run the scene for us.
“The vic is a white male—”
“Yes, ma’am. Approximately thirty-five, no ID on him, but Tuohy says he knows who he is. A pimp. Denny something.”
“Tuohy didn’t know his last name. A guest found the body in the space between the soft drink machine and the ice maker. My partner and I taped off the vending machine area, and we’re about to do the same to the parking lot. Mr. Tuohy is waiting for you in his office.”
“Okay, Birmingham. Good job. You called CSI?”
“Yes, ma’am, and the ME.”
I said, “We’d like to see the body now.”
Officer Birmingham walked Conklin and me to the bank of vending machines on the ground floor. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Lopez was dressed in the same clothes he was wearing when we dragged him off the street and into our house yesterday. Jeans, cotton shirt, maroon pullover, denim jacket. He was lying in the gap between two large vending machines, folded neatly into the space. I saw no blood, no signs of violence.
But there was no question. Denny was dead. I thought of him saying, “For God’s sake. You’re going to get me killed.” Almost forty-eight hours later, it had happened.
Conklin and I looked at each other. No words were needed, but I felt responsible. It was a message. His killer was very likely the same person who’d killed the schoolteachers, or knew who did.
Conklin squeezed my shoulder. I patted his hand. And together we stared down at the dead man.
Had he been killed while loitering in the parking lot?
Or had he been murdered elsewhere? A car could have backed up to this spot to dump his body. Two men could have done it in under a minute.
I stooped to Denny’s body and, using a pen, moved his collar aside. There were bruises around his neck. He’d been strangled but not hanged.
Similar MO but not identical.
And why had he been killed at all?
Conklin and I theorized over Denny’s body.
Had he told the wrong barfly at Bud’s that he’d been questioned about the big man buying drinks for the murdered women at the Bridge? Had the big man heard that Denny was talking and put him down?
Or was this an unrelated murder? Denny could have gotten into something in the parking lot. Then got rolled. Strangled.
Nah. Too much of a coincidence.
Normally, I didn’t talk to the dead, but I heard myself say, “What happened to you, Denny?”
While Conklin notified dispatch that we were on the scene, I called Jacobi at home.
I apologized for waking him up, but hell, this couldn’t wait.
“Our favorite pimp got taken out,” I told Jacobi. “Denny Lopez. He gave us nothing. This was a senseless, stupid death.”
“Not your fault, Boxer.”
“That’s not how it feels,” I said.
As I signed off with Jacobi, Conklin said, “Look,” and pointed to Taqueria del Lobo’s delivery truck at the far end of the parking lot. He said, “That’ll be back at the lab within the hour.”
Conklin and I edged through the crowd, heading toward the manager’s office to see Jake Tuohy and get the day rolling. I had a terrible sense of déjà vu. I pictured all the interviews that would follow, the guests who had been minding their own business, or asleep, hadn’t heard a thing.
But one bright thought peeked through the clouds.
Denny’s killing, compared with the others, lacked finesse. I would say it had been rushed. Maybe we were crowding our killer. Maybe we were getting under his skin.
Joe was annotating the Petrović file when Diano called.
“You were right,” the agent said. “The GPS had autotrack. I have the location of the car.”
“Watch but don’t touch it,” Joe said. “Give me the coordinates.”
Joe drove to the address Diano had given him in Laurel Heights, an upscale area of two- and three-story Edwardian homes, tree-lined streets, and expensive shops, everything beautifully maintained.
He easily found the Tesla with the dinged-up front fender parked in front of the Laurel Inn on Presidio. You really couldn’t miss it. The back end of the car was caved in from a bad collision.
Joe touched the door handle and the falcon wing creaked open and lifted.
A purple scarf was curled up in the passenger-side footwell. Joe recognized it as Anna’s, and there was a candy bar wrapper near the scarf that confirmed it.
Snickers. Anna’s favorite.
Joe’s backup teams joined him at the car, and they spread out. They had no picture of Anna, but her description—a woman of forty, five foot six, 130 pounds, with a scar the size and shape of a hand on the left side of her face from eye to mouth—should serve.
The five experienced federal agents went from door to door, from shop to hotel to apartment building, in a grid five blocks in all directions from the car. The wreck of the Tesla had been noticed, but no one had seen a woman matching Anna’s description. The photo of Petrović also drew a negative response.
Joe phoned Steinmetz and reported what he knew: the damage to the vehicle, no indication of violence inside the car, and no sign of Anna. He suggested that Steinmetz get the SFPD involved. The Tesla had to be transported to the city’s forensics lab, and they needed to file a missing person report.
Joe watched the flatbed truck take the Tesla down Presidio Avenue toward the forensics lab at Hunters Point. Once it was out of sight, he phoned Dale Winston at the dealership to ask if Anna had made contact and to tell him that the car had been seized by the FBI.
Joe returned to the office and sat down with Steinmetz, who once again stated the uncomfortable truth.
There was still nothing linking Petrović to Anna.
“But here’s an idea, Molinari,” Steinmetz said. “Ask Petrović for permission to search his home, car, and business. Say you just want to eliminate him as a person of interest. See what he says.”
Joe thought it over and saw no serious downside. And maybe Petrović would toss them a bone, have a suggestion—or a telling misdirection.
Joe found Petrović at Tony’s Place. The former military executioner said that he was “eager to help out law enforcement. No problem.”
Joe, Diano, and Ennis went through the restaurant. Then Petrović led the caravan of federal agents to his house and threw open the doors.
He mocked the agents as they searched the spacious three floors.
“Maybe she’s in the washing machine, Joe. Have you searched the trunk of my car? Don’t forget to dust everything for fingerprints. I’ll send the bill for cleanup to the FBI.”
Joe was polite. But after three hours of eating shit, he was seething.
Did Petrović have Anna?
Or had she had an accident with the car and, rather than face the music, taken off to parts unknown?
Anna was strong-willed and angry at him.
If she had gone off on her own, Joe really had no clue where to look for her.
Finally home after my eighteen-hour day in the Tenderloin, I greeted Joe and Martha from the doorway. I unbuckled my gun belt, pulled off my jacket, and stepped out of my shoes, leaving it all in a heap, and made my way across the room to my husband.
I was exhausted, frustrated, and starving, but still dying to tell Joe about Lopez and kick the case around with him. He was sitting on the sofa with his laptop open on the coffee table. I dropped onto the couch next to him, put my arms around him, and hugged him to pieces.
“I’m guessing you had a bad day,” he said, hugging me back.
I got right into it, telling him about Denny Lopez in snatches, knowing that Joe was an expert at making sense of random clues. Then he did the same with me.
“Anna is missing,” he said. “She borrowed a car from the dealership, had an accident, and vanished.”
When he’d given it all up, I saw that his case was like mine, clues everywhere, leading to nothing.
“Keep your phone charged,” I said. “She could call saying she ran away from home and that she’s all right.”
He nodded, but from the look on his face, I knew he was deeply worried. He didn’t buy my happy ending for Anna at all.
“I did find something interesting,” he said, “about our pal Slobodan Petrović.”
He turned the laptop so that I could see the photo on his computer screen, a slightly out-of-focus image of a group of about eight men wearing fatigues, loosely gathered in a wooded area. They looked like they were having an outing. But there was more to it than that—much more.
A female wearing only a skirt pulled up around her thighs was lying in the middle ground, encircled by several of the men. And in the background, shaded by trees, were bodies of men and women in civilian clothing hanging from branches. There had to be a dozen of them. The vignette looked unreal, like an art installation, the product of a particularly gruesome imagination. But it wasn’t art. And it wasn’t imaginary.
“Oh, my God,” I said several times.
Then I scrutinized the pictures, looking for “our pal” Petrović.
Standing near the center of the frame was a large, wide-shouldered man with a shaved head, wearing fatigues, combat boots. There was something in his hand, small, possibly metallic, with points—like a throwing star.
Joe said, “That’s him.”
“Is it?” I wasn’t sure.
“There’s a caption. I translated it. ‘Colonel Slobodan
Petrović and men after taking the Bosnian town of Djoba. Petrović is proficient in the use of
I asked, “What’s the source of the photo?”
“It appears to have been taken by one of the soldiers. It showed up in the trials against the Serbian Army high command. The caption was added during the trial, and it’s unattributed.
“And I found this,” Joe said. “A Serbian soldier testified at Petrović’s trial. Here’s a quote: ‘Colonel Petrović and other army officers would watch the hangings. I heard but never saw this. There were rumors that they would sometimes hunt victims in the woods.’”
Joe looked at me.
“You called it, Joe. When Adele’s body was discovered, you said you thought it was the work of a gang. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to call Petrović the gang leader.”
“I think so,” he said. “Get ready for the punch line. The witness said, ‘Colonel Petrović had a reputation for using a throwing star, and using it well.’”
I threw myself back on the couch. Was this proof? Was this evidence against the man who had injured Carly Myers and Adele Saran with throwing stars and then hanged them? What was the value of testimony from an unnamed witness who may have flipped on Petrović in order to get leniency from the court? Even the report of hunting in the woods was unsubstantiated.
Joe and I talked about this, concluding, naturally, that neither the SFPD nor the FBI could vet these foreign crimes attested to by unnamed witnesses. Furthermore, we still had
no direct evidence that linked Petrović to throwing stars, or hanging anyone in the USA.
“It’s a mile short of probable cause,” I said.
“Exactly what Steinmetz said. But here’s what I say. We’re a step closer to landing this son of a bitch.”
The pain nagged and pulled at Anna until she was forced to wake up and open her eyes.
She saw nothing but blackness and thought she was blind.
Panic raised a fine sweat over her whole body, and for a long moment she forgot to breathe.
What happened to me? Where am I?
The pain was excruciating. It radiated from the back of her head and seemed to spread everywhere. Her heart bucked as the pieces came together.
She was a prisoner again.
A bar of light coming from under a door showed her that she was on a bed in a small room.
How did I get here?
A feeling of flying came into her mind, then images of driving the Tesla, all speed and freedom. She’d parked outside Petrović’s house. And a void opened in her memory. Something had happened.
Anna’s head was killing her.
She must have taken a blow and lost consciousness. She didn’t remember any of that, but she tried to recall it, clawing at the fog wrapped around her memory. And then she was dragged into the present by the ragged sound of breathing beside her.
She looked around the small room for a way out. There were no windows, just one door and the thin bar of light.
It was enough to see that her clothes had been thrown around the floor. His clothes were in a pile by the side of the bed.
Her stomach was empty but she heaved, clamped her hand over her mouth. She told herself to just lie still and breathe and think. In time she looked at the man in the bed and assessed him. How strong was he, how drunk, how much of a threat.
He wasn’t big, but from what she could see, he was muscular, like the soldiers in the rape hotel in Djoba. Anna had survived the hotel because she’d focused on the future, when she would be free, and what she would do one day to her attackers.
She sat up slowly, and the man shifted beside her, clacked his teeth, stopped breathing, threw his arm across her, and came awake.
He looked at her.
“What?” he said.
“Bathroom,” she said.
He pointed at the door, rolled over so that he was facing the wall, and resumed his sleep.
Anna dressed in the dark. She could not find her purse,
her phone, but the door was unlocked. She stepped out into a hallway, holding her shoes. A night-light was on in the bathroom to her right, and she went in, closed the door. There was no lock.
She flipped the switch by the door and the ceiling light came on. Heart pounding, ready to spring up if the door opened, Anna used the toilet, then went to the sink.
There was a note taped to the mirror.
It was written in Bosnian in large, black block letters:
STARA PRAVILA JOŠ UVIJEK PRIMJENJUJU. ZNAŠ.
It meant, “The old rules still apply. You know.”
It was signed “SP.”