Authors: James Patterson
When Conklin and I returned to the squad room, Jacobi was waiting for us with a woman he introduced as Susan Jones’s sister Ronnie Hooks.
“Ms. Hooks,” he said, “Sergeant Boxer’s the primary investigator on this case. She’s the best.”
I shook the woman’s hand, then introduced Conklin, and the three of us walked back to Interview 2.
Ronnie Hooks looked to be in her early forties. She was perfectly manicured and coiffed and smartly dressed in a crisp red suit, with some bling around her neck and a wedding ring.
Conklin pulled out a chair for her, and when we were all seated, he asked her how she was doing.
“No good,” she said. “No good at all.”
“Talk to us,” I said.
She said, “Susan and I are like twins. I’m ten years older. She’s my little sister. But we talk every day. Except last week—Marty and I just got back from Peru. It was
a long trip, two weeks, in a remote area. Normally, I talk to Susie every day. I got back to an area with Wi-Fi, and I find out the worst news imaginable. How could she be missing?”
Her crazy eyes were switching from me to Conklin to the mirrored window to her folded hands on the table. I had a thought that she might be on the verge of some kind of breakdown.
I also had a good idea why she’d come in on her own and where this was going. She was going to ask why we hadn’t found Susan. She’d want to know if Susan was dead or if she should post a reward. She might get mad and threaten to go to the media with a heartbreaking story about her sister and SFPD’s incompetence.
Instead, Ms. Hooks threw us a curve ball.
“Susan was a good teacher, but she didn’t make enough money to pay her rent and own a car and have enough left over to get herself a decent haircut.”
I said only, “Uh-huh.”
“She did some freelance work,” said Hooks.
“Like tutoring and such?” Conklin asked her. “She’s a piano teacher, right?”
Hooks looked down at the table and spoke to her folded hands. “She’s also an exotic dancer.”
My jaw actually dropped. Susan Jones was a stripper? But Hooks wasn’t looking at me. She was inside her story and she kept going.
“Susan worked once in a while out of a club,” she said. “Never told me where, and I never asked for details because I didn’t approve. I was afraid for her, but she was strong-
willed and it’s not for me to judge her. And she said this club was a decent place. Pfft.” Ronnie laughed with no joy. “The customers were businessmen, she said.”
Customers wearing jackets and ties wouldn’t have eased my mind if
sister were dancing, but Ronnie Hooks wasn’t done.
“The part that worried me,” she said, “was the owner of the club was some kind of drug dealer posing as a father figure. Or the way Susan put it, ‘He helps out girls who are trying to make new lives in America. Or girls like me, who need the money.’ Some of those girls danced in the shows with Susan. But some of them …”
She flipped a hand. I interpreted that to mean she didn’t want to say that they were prostitutes.
I said, “Ronnie, I want to be sure I understand. You’re saying you think Susan was dancing as a second job?”
in her very frightened eyes.
“The big boss advanced her some money, and she was supposed to work it off. That’s what she told me. But now I think … he controlled them.”
“Ronnie, this is important. Did Susan ever describe him, or anyone at the club?”
“I think he’s from the Balkans or something. She just called him ‘the big boss,’ sometimes the nickname Mr. Big. But I heard her use the name Marko once, on the phone.
I said, “Might the boss’s name be Petrović? Did Susan ever say that?”
She shook her head no.
“Susan was afraid of him, and she said she wanted to keep me out of it. But she really couldn’t. She swore she wasn’t having sex with him or anyone, and so I gave Susan money
to pay off this criminal before it came to that. I guess it wasn’t enough.”
I told Ms. Hooks that the department had assigned every available resource to finding Susan and that I would call her myself as soon as we had any information.
It wasn’t what Susan Jones’s sister wanted to hear. She grimaced as she grabbed her bag. Conklin opened the door for her. She was halfway down the hall when she turned and came back to the doorway with tears streaming down her cheeks.
Hooks looked straight at me and said, “Look. I don’t want to say this, because Susan warned me when I saw her last. She said, ‘Don’t go to the police.’ But she’d heard a rumor that really scared her. She heard that Mr. Big had killed a couple of girls who didn’t pay up, or who couldn’t perform—drugs, I assumed. Susan heard him joking about it.
“I think …,” Hooks said, “I think Susan’s friends were murdered.”
Susan’s sister bolted from the room. I heard the elevator bell ding. And she was gone.
Conklin and I were filling out our reports when Jacobi stopped by our desks and rolled up a chair.
“How’s it going?” he asked.
I said, “We need another couple of teams, Jacobi. We’re nowhere on Myers and Saran. We’re nowhere on Lopez. I’m afraid Susan Jones is either dead or about to be. We did just get some very interesting background on Jones from her sister, and maybe a fuller picture of what Petrović is up to, how he’s making money, how these women fell into his trap. But still, we’ve got nothing but ghost sightings of Petrović.”
“It’s gotten too hot for him,” Conklin said. “He’s dodging us, playing a shell game with his car. He’s not at his usual haunts, and we don’t have enough eyes on the ground. And if we see him and pull him in for questioning, we don’t have any leverage. Unless we can follow some crumbs on what Susan’s sister told us, which could be something. Or it could be the TV-fueled theory of a desperate sister.”
“So,” I said, putting a lid on it, “that’s how it’s going.”
“It’s only been what, a week and a half since Myers?”
“More like two, Jacobi. Eleven days since Myers. Four days since Saran. Twenty-four hours, more or less, since Lopez. We cannot look under every rock, even with McNeil and Chi backing us up. Please. Get us some help.”
“I’ve turned out all my pockets, Boxer. But I’m here. Walk me through it. How do you see Lopez’s death linked to Tony’s Place?”
I said, “Guessing here. Lopez was some kind of witness. He may have seen Petrović buying drinks for the schoolteachers. He may have been seen talking to us.”
“So Lopez was put down before he could give up Petrović.”
I said, “Or maybe he was just a victim of circumstance. Drug addict needs some cash, strangles Denny for his wallet. Seems like a stretch, but that could have happened.”
Conklin added, “Either way, we still can’t put Petrović at any of the murders. Everything we think we know is pure speculation.”
Jacobi said, “I’m meeting with the chief tomorrow first thing. I’ll get on my knees and beg for more help on this case. And as you well know, the press isn’t giving us a break. But look. Two of you go get dinner and put it on my tab.”
I said, “That’s not necessary.”
feel better, okay, Boxer?”
Conklin and I walked our hunger pangs across the street to MacBain’s. We were putting down burgers and curly fries at a table near the jukebox.
Sydney refreshed our drinks and told us, “Take your time.”
Conklin said, “Mr. Big is Petrović. But try to pin a murder on him. It’s like harpooning a whale with a plastic fork.”
I nodded, opened my bun, and applied more ketchup.
Conklin and I had been partners for so long, a couple of words took the place of speeches.
I said, “Lopez. Petrović. Schoolteachers doing double duty as naughty girls.”
“You believed Tuohy?” Conklin said.
“He’s got an ugly personality, but I don’t think he’s stupid. Not stupid enough to leave bodies at his place of employment. What do you think?”
Conklin said, “I think Jacobi would want us to have beer.”
He raised his hand, and Sydney said, “Draft? Coming right up.”
Conklin said, “I haven’t seen Cindy in three days. It feels longer.”
“Me too with Joe.”
Conklin said, “Unless forensics ties Petrović to any one of our victims …”
He didn’t have to finish the sentence. I said, “Let’s turn it over again, look at it from a different angle.”
He said, “Okay. So here’s our new angle. Susan tells her sister that there’s a rumor. A foreigner with a no-name name killed a couple of women. We’ve got two hanged women and a pimp who was connected to one of the victims, turns up strangled.”
I had to lay down the details I’d been keeping back out of respect for Joe. It was time. I said, “Joe’s got pictures of Petrović in Bosnia. In one of them there’s hanged bodies of captives in Djoba. And apparently, he was good with throwing stars.”
Conklin stopped his burger just short of his mouth. I hadn’t told him about the photo of Petrović with his troops and the bodies hanging from trees in the background. It was Joe’s case. FBI intel. I hadn’t told my partner about Anna.
“Throwing stars? Okay, you’ve hooked me now,” said my partner. “Keep talking.”
“It wasn’t mine to tell,” I said. “But you need to know.”
“Speak,” Conklin said.
“A Bosnian war survivor, Anna Sotovina, came to the FBI because she saw Petrović in San Francisco.”
“She can tie him to the victims?”
“No, but she’s convinced he recognized her. Joe thought so, too. Now Anna has been missing for two days. Joe has
the case. He’s looking for her and Petrović. As for us, we can wait for Mr. Big to make a mistake, or we can partner up with the FBI.”
Conklin said, “We’ve done it before. They take over and we buy them coffee.”
“Who cares? Let’s nail the Butcher before we find another body hanging from a tree.”
Conklin grabbed his phone and called Jacobi.
I grabbed mine and called Joe.
Jacobi had worked a small miracle.
This morning he and FBI field office supervisor Craig Steinmetz had shredded the red tape, and a joint task force had been born. Conklin and I, along with Joe and his team, were working together to locate Petrović and bring him in for questioning. Anna’s disappearance was the probable cause we needed.
Petrović wasn’t in his house on Fell. Likewise, the maître d’ at his restaurant said that Tony wouldn’t be in today, that’s all he knew.
At 5:00 p.m., after a fruitless day of hide-and-seek, traffic cameras flagged Petrović’s Jaguar coming across the Bay Bridge. A team of agents tailed him to the Laurel Heights neighborhood and then lost him.
Then a patrol car located Petrović’s car parked on Pine Street in front of a men’s clothier. An undercover went into the shop, looked around, and didn’t see Petrović. When he showed the salespeople a photo, they all said they had not
seen him. The cop and his partner canvassed the rest of the block before calling it quits.
It seemed that Petrović had gone underground once more, to our immense and vocal frustration.
It was now twenty past midnight.
Conklin and I waited inside a plain black Honda sedan parked on a pleasant residential block with a good view of the Jaguar. Rich was behind the wheel, and I manned the coms, which were crackling, connecting us to dispatch and to team members stationed at various places in this neighborhood.
Joe’s team was inside a surveillance van stationed on Geary, four blocks away. I’d seen the van. It had a dinged-up chassis, ladders on top, a decal on the side reading
KELLY’S HOME REPAIR
. Inside, it was like a spaceship equipped with cutting-edge tech: listening devices, a satellite hookup, a periscope, and four agents dressed in workmen’s clothes so that they could easily leave the van without bringing attention to it or themselves.
We had eyes, ears, and boots on the street, but there was nothing to report.
Shops were closed. Traffic was slight. Houses were dark. Six FBI agents, a SWAT team, and Conklin and I were on alert for one man.
It had been a long night.
At that moment Conklin was on the phone with Cindy.
“It can’t be helped, Cin. And no, I can’t tell you about it on the record. I just can’t … I realize that … I understand. Do you understand me? Hold on.”
He said to me, “Will you talk to her?”
I said, “Really?”
I reached for the phone and said, “Cindy, there’s nothing to tell. We’re on a stakeout.”
My attention was drawn to an SUV with a broken headlight that cruised past us, slowed down, and stopped up the block, keeping the motor on.
I grabbed my binoculars and took a good look at the vehicle, a Cadillac Escalade. All I could get off the plate were the last three numbers, and even those numbers were approximate.
Rich took back his phone, saying, “Cindy, we’ve gotta go. Love you.”
He clicked off, and together we watched as the SUV’s passenger-side door opened and a large man got out. Then the car moved off, north on Presidio Avenue.
I turned my eyes back to the large man approaching a white-trimmed gray house across the street and up the block a hundred yards from where we were parked. There was a garage on the street level, and behind some shrubbery a staircase rose from the ground level to the front door on the main floor.
I sharpened my focus on the man with the thick salt-and-pepper hair and a military bearing. He was smoking a cigar.
I recognized him from his pictures. Finally, a break. Slobodan Petrović was in our crosshairs.
I called Joe.
Joe’s voice was in my ear.
“What’ve you got, Lindsay?”
I told him, “Petrović was just dropped off by a dark-colored Escalade with a broken headlight at a house on Pine, middle of the block. I got three numbers off the plate. Petrović’s going through the front door now.”
I texted Joe a photo of the man and the house, up until now a mystery location to all of us.
Joe told all units to stand by. He assigned three teams to surrounding intersections and ordered SWAT to come in.
I used our car’s computer to look up the owner of the house Petrović had just entered. The title search came up with a name: Marko Vladic, formerly a citizen of Serbia, now a naturalized American. He’d lived in San Francisco for nearly five years and owned a blue Escalade.
I checked the criminal databases, holding my breath as I wondered if Vladic had a police record. If so, Petrović was associating with a known criminal.
I ran Vladic’s name through the FBI database for good measure before saying to Conklin, “He has no record. At least not under the name Marko Vladic.”
Conklin said, “Try an image search.”
As Joe gave orders to the teams and discussed perimeters, potential stumbling blocks, backup plans, I looked for
in any public record I could think of.
And I found him.
I told Rich, “Active liquor license for a strip club in the Tenderloin called Skin. It’s at 816 Larkin. Is that Petrović’s club? Or do we have this wrong? Is Vladic Mr. Big? Is he the one who had Susan under his thumb?”
“I can’t wait to ask him.”
I looked up to see the SWAT truck stop at the top of the block, positioned to roll up to 3045 Pine. I wanted to look up Skin, their licenses, any violations.
But I didn’t get a chance.
Moments after speaking with him, I saw Joe’s van pull up to the curb a few cars ahead of us.
When Joe and his partner were standing in front of the gray house, Conklin and I got out of our Honda. I zipped my Windbreaker identifying me as SFPD over my Kevlar vest and pulled my nine. Once Conklin and I were in sync, we crossed the street and ran up the exterior stairs behind Joe and Diano.
The front door of 3045 Pine was painted charcoal gray, with a peephole and a brass knocker shaped like a fist. Joe was team leader, but I was the primary because it was under SFPD jurisdiction.
Joe said to me, “After you knock, stand aside.”
When I knocked, were bullets going to come through the door? Was this my last moment on Earth? If not, what about Joe or Conklin? How would I ever bear that?
But there were other lives at stake. If Susan Jones and Anna Sotovina were here, it wasn’t their choice.
I knew the drill.
I stepped up to the door and lifted the knocker.