Authors: James Patterson
Anna knew cars.
Her father and brother had been mechanics before the war, and from them she had picked up a lot of knowledge about engines. That Jaguar, she knew, could go from zero to sixty in about six seconds, but not without a clear lane on a straightaway.
Petrović’s car was immediately mired in the evening rush hour, traffic moving at a stop-and-go speed averaging about twenty miles per hour.
Petrović wouldn’t notice a cyclist two cars back. She would follow him for as long as she could.
Traffic unlocked and Anna slipped behind an SUV on the Jag’s tail, where she was hidden from Petrović’s rear view. The pedaling was easy on the downhill, but the inevitable incline made it a struggle to keep up.
She put her whole self into the climb, stood up on the pedals, and forced the bike forward.
How long could she keep up? Petrović was driving a well-tuned sports car, while she worked her spent muscles on a twelve-year-old bike. A car honked and then passed her, too close, the compressed air shaking her bike, almost costing Anna her balance.
But she steadied her wheels and pressed on, fixing her gaze on Petrović’s car just ahead of her, now coming to an intersection. The light was yellow, but as it turned red, the Jag shot through the cross street and continued on the one-way street leading toward Golden Gate Park.
Anna followed him, ignoring the shouts of pedestrians on the crosswalk, flying through to the other side of the intersection, and pedaling full bore like a madwoman.
As drivers leaned on their horns, Anna kept her eyes on the Jaguar, but an ironic thought intruded.
After all these years she could still get killed by Petrović. Quickly she murdered the thought. If there was any righteousness in the world, she would hunt him and put him down.
Anna was tailing a silver SUV, now four cars behind the Jaguar and losing ground, when the SUV slowed and, without signaling, peeled off onto Cole Street. Up ahead, cars filled in the gap between her and the Jag as Petrović pulled even farther away from her.
Anna had memorized his license plate number, but she no longer remembered it. Her chest hurt. Her legs burned. Tears slipped out of the corners of her eyes and streamed across her cheeks. Sweat rolled down her sides. And the terrible slide show of cruelty and death flashed
behind her eyes, keeping time with the
She refused to quit, pedaling slower but still moving forward, and finally, as the road veered at the end of the Panhandle, leading to JFK Drive, she picked up speed. She could do this. She was winning.
She would find out where Petrović was going and she would make a plan. He wouldn’t get away again.
Anna was coasting at a good speed, approaching the intersection where the traffic from Fell and Oak merged, when a car honked behind her and then zoomed ahead and cut her off. She swiveled the handlebars toward the curb, lost her balance, tipped, and crashed.
Traffic sped on, leaving Anna Sotovina in the gutter.
She screamed at the sky. No one heard her.
On a chilly Wednesday morning my partner, Rich Conklin, parked our squad car on the downhill slope of Jackson Street in the shadow of Pacific View Preparatory School.
PVP was possibly the best high school in California, with a cutting-edge curriculum, five statewide team sports championships last year, a record number of top college acceptances, and a cadre of first-class teachers.
We were both entirely focused on a disturbing case involving the disappearance of three of those teachers. It was day two of our investigation, and it wasn’t looking good.
On Monday evening Carly Myers, Adele Saran, and Susan Jones had apparently walked from Pacific View Prep to a local bar called the Bridge, had a good time at dinner, and after leaving the restaurant, vanished without a trace. The teachers were all single women in their late twenties to early thirties. A bartender knew what each of the women had had to drink. Their waitress and a customer had watched the
three women leave the Bridge together at around nine that night. Reportedly, all were in good spirits.
When the teachers didn’t show up for work the next morning, their cars were discovered in the school’s parking lot with the doors locked, their book bags and computer cases in the front passenger seats.
We’d spent yesterday checking out their homes and habits. They hadn’t slept in their beds, called anyone to say they’d be out, or used cash machines or their credit cards. It appeared that they had simply vanished.
Director of CSI Charles Clapper had called in his best techs and investigators from all shifts.
They were going at it hard.
There were no surveillance cameras focused on faculty parking, but Forensics was reviewing the video taken inside the Bridge, frame by frame, dusting the women’s cars inside and out, and examining everything on their computers.
So far our lab had found nothing suspicious and hadn’t turned up a single clue.
Bottom line: thirty-six hours had passed since anyone had seen or heard from them.
By the time we’d finished checking their homes, Lieutenant Warren Jacobi had already contacted the women’s parents. Understandably, as good at his job as he was, Jacobi’s questions had sent the parents into a panic.
Carly Myers’s family lived in town. Conklin and I had visited them last night after Jacobi’s call to see if a stone had been left unturned. It had gone about as well as expected. Sheer terror, anger, unanswerable questions, demands for promises that their daughter would be all right.
Their fear and pain and denial had stuck with me and reverberated still.
I slugged down the last of my coffee, crumpled the empty container, and stuffed it into the plastic bag we kept in the car for trash. My partner did the same.
Rich Conklin is a sunny-side-up kind of guy, but you wouldn’t have known that today. He sighed long and hard, not just frustrated over this puzzle box full of blank pieces. He was reasonably worried. He had wanted to be in Homicide for years, and now he was living the dark side of the dream. I knew what he was thinking, because I was thinking it, too.
Where were the teachers?
Were they alive?
How much time did they have left?
As I texted Joe, my new husband, my partner sang the refrain of an old Steve Miller song, “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future.”
I checked in with dispatch, then said to my partner, “Okay, Rich. Let’s go.”
Conklin and I got out of the car and headed up the stone stairway from the street to the school.
At the top of the stairway was a manicured lawn with a high 180-degree view of the ocean that was opaque with a foggy marine layer this morning. Ahead of us stood Pacific View Prep, a compound made up of three five-story buildings at right angles, forming a horseshoe around an open courtyard.
We approached the main entrance dead ahead in the central building and badged the armed security guard, whose name tag read
I made the introductions.
“Sergeant Boxer,” I said. “Homicide. My partner, Inspector Conklin.”
“Homicide?” Stroop said. “Hey,
You found their bodies?”
“No, no,” Conklin said. “We’re treating this missing persons as top priority. All units, all hands are on deck.”
Stroop looked relieved. I asked him, “Did you see Myers, Jones, and Saran leave the school Monday night?”
He shook his head. “I go off duty at four.”
“But you know them, right?”
“Sure, casually. I see them in the hallways, say, ‘Morning,’ ‘Have a great weekend.’ Like that.”
I asked, “Would you know if any of them have enemies? Maybe a jealous boyfriend? Or a disgruntled student who didn’t get the grade he or she wanted? Anyone showing inappropriate interest in any of them?”
He shook his head no again.
“They’re all nice ladies. Our students are good kids.”
I nodded. “I do have some routine questions for you.”
He said, “Go ahead.”
I asked where he had been the last couple of nights. He’d spent Monday home all night with the wife and son; last night he and his wife had gone to a birthday dinner at a restaurant with friends.
He pulled out his phone and produced time-stamped selfies at the dinner table, which he forwarded to me with his phone number and that of the birthday boy.
He said, “I wish I knew something. I want to help. I can’t stop thinking about them.”
Conklin handed his card to Stroop. “Call anytime if a thought strikes.” Then we entered the main building and started down the wide hallway.
Two days ago Carly Myers, Adele Saran, and Susan Jones had walked this same hallway on their way to and from class. As Stroop had confirmed, Monday had been an ordinary workday. He hadn’t seen any red flags that had caused alarm.
So what had happened to the three schoolteachers?
My sense was that they’d had no clue their lives were about to veer off from ordinary workday to an extraordinarily bad place. That they’d be abducted on Monday night within minutes of leaving the Bridge.
Every passing hour made it more likely that they were dead.
Conklin and I checked the names on the doors as we made our way down the broad, locker-lined hallway to the office of assistant dean Karin Slaughter.
In a conversation with the dean, we’d learned that Slaughter was thirty-two, had a master’s degree in education, had been with Pacific View Prep for five years, and, importantly, was friends with the three missing women.
Even if she didn’t know it yet, she might have a clue to their disappearance.
We found Slaughter’s office, and Conklin knocked on her open door. Slaughter stood up from her desk and stepped forward to shake our hands. She was a conservative dresser, wearing a midcalf-length black jersey dress, low-heeled shoes, and a look of genuine concern.
I heard myself say, “You have the same name as one of my favorite writers.”
“I hear that a lot,” she said with a smile. “We’re Googlegangers,” she said.
“Googlegangers? Let me guess; people with the same name?”
“That’s it. Google
and we both come up. I’m a big fan of hers, too.”
I liked her immediately. She indicated a row of Slaughter’s bestsellers on her bookshelf, but as she returned to her desk, her welcoming expression drooped with worry.
My partner and I took the two chairs across from Slaughter’s desk, and she blurted out, “I’m so frightened. I cannot sleep or think about anything but them. Did you know that I was supposed to go out with them Monday night? I couldn’t go. I had too much work. I had to beg off.”
Conklin and I had the missing women’s photos, home addresses, and work schedules but knew little about their personalities, habits, and relationships. Karin Slaughter was eager to fill us in.
“Carly Myers is a born leader,” she said. “She’s the one to organize a party or a field trip. She teaches history and loves sports. Baseball, football, whatever. I’d say she’s outgoing and adventuresome. In a good way.”
Then Slaughter described Jones, who taught music, was divorced, watched late-night TV every night, and had lost thirty-five pounds in the last year. “She’s fun and a gifted pianist, and she’s looking for love,” Slaughter said. She’d bought skinny jeans and become a blonde.
We asked about Saran next, and Slaughter told us that she was new to the school. “She came here about a year ago from a public school in Monterey. Teaches English lit, reads a lot, and works out at our gym every day at lunch. She’s thoughtful. Serious. She’d been coming out of her shell lately. We’re good for her, I’d say. Although now …”
Conklin and I had questions: Had any of the women had any recent problems at the school with students or faculty? Had any of them received threats? Did they have addictions, any trouble with relatives or suitors? Any sign of depression?
No, no, no, no.
According to Slaughter, the three young women had perfect attendance records, were well liked, and, except for Adele, were dating a bit.
“This is hell,” she told us. “I feel very bad to say this, but really, I could be missing right now. You could be looking for me. Please tell me that they could still be … safe.”
I couldn’t tell her what she wanted to know, so I deflected.
“Every cop in the city is looking for them. Our forensics lab is going over their cars and apartments and electronics. We’re in contact with their parents. We
find your friends.”
I was reassuring Slaughter and convincing myself that we’d have a solid lead on this crime by day’s end. There had to be a video, a witness, a tip, that would lead to the missing schoolteachers. Right? Even a ransom call would be welcome.
We thanked Karin Slaughter for her help, urged her to call if something useful occurred to her, and headed to our next appointment.
By the end of the school day, my partner and I had spoken to two dozen people at the school and had gotten a few thin, go-nowhere leads. We stopped off at the forensics lab around five that evening.
Clapper was putting on his jacket when we walked in.
“Their cars are dirty,” he told us. “Like regular dirty. A lot of fingerprints, dirt on the floor mats, water bottles. We’re running the prints off all of that. Nothing jumps out from their personal or office computers, but we’re still working on those and their cell phone histories.”
“So … nothing to tell us, right?”
“Boxer, we’re dancing as fast as we can,” said Clapper.
The three of us walked out to the parking lot together.
Even small talk eluded us.
Where were those women? With who? What had happened to them?
Joe Molinari left his office at the San Francisco branch of the FBI at around seven and walked to where he’d parked his car, on Golden Gate Avenue near Larkin.
This district, between Civic Center and the Tenderloin, was a maze of dark streets populated by rent-by-the-hour hotels and was the go-to neighborhood for drug pushers and their clientele, criminals (some of them violent), and the terminally out of luck.
Joe’s keys were in hand and his car was under a streetlight, apparently untouched. He was thinking about home and dinner when he saw a woman sitting on the curb near his car with her head in her hands. She was sobbing.
As he came closer, Joe saw that she was wearing only one shoe and that her jacket sleeve was ripped at the shoulder. But otherwise, the quality of her clothing was good. Joe didn’t think she was homeless.
Maybe she’d been mugged.
“Hey there,” he said.
The woman looked up. The streetlight revealed a disfiguring burn scar on the left side of her face from the outer corner of her eye to her upper lip. She pulled at her scarf to cover it.
“Are you okay?” Joe asked.
“Fantastic,” she said.
Then her expression crumpled and she lowered her head into her hands again.
Joe sat down on the curb next to her.
“What’s your name?”
She dried her face with her sleeve and eventually said, “Anna.”
“I’m Joe. Are you hurt, Anna?”
“Big picture or little picture?” she said.
He smiled at her. He gauged her age as late thirties. She had an accent. Eastern European.
“Immediate picture first. Are you injured?”
She shrugged. “I don’t think so. I fell off my bike.”
She pointed to the bike leaning against a building a little way down the block. The frame was bent and the chain was broken. It looked like it had some mileage on it before the accident.
“Do you need a lift?”
She looked very unsure. Vulnerable. He really didn’t feel right leaving her in this neighborhood sitting on the sidewalk with her backpack.
“It’s okay,” he said. He opened the flap of his jacket and showed her his badge.
“Can I see that badge again?”
He showed it to her again, and she leaned in so she could
read the inscription around the crest:
Federal Bureau of Investigation.
She pulled back and said, “A lift would be great.”
Joe asked Anna where she lived and helped her into his car. He got the bike, folded it into the trunk, and called Lindsay from the street.
“Blondie, I’m going to be a little late. A half hour, tops.”
After they hung up, he got behind the wheel of his Benz. Anna was hugging the passenger-side door. She said, “Thank you.”
“Happy to help out.”
He started the car and headed east on Golden Gate, making a number of turns until they’d cleared the Tenderloin. He said, “Anna, tell me if you can. Why were you sitting by yourself on a corner in the worst neighborhood in the city?”
“I went to the FBI to tell them. I guess I look disreputable, because no one would listen to me. You won’t believe me, either.”
“I’m a good listener,” he said. “Give me a try.”