Authors: James Patterson
This all happened five years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday.
That week I had a lunch date with Cindy Thomas. She was waiting for me at Fast ’n Good, a coffee shop two blocks from her office, and I was late. I was still ten minutes away, walking toward Fourth Street as fast as I could without breaking into a run.
Jacobi had called an impromptu meeting that morning. He stood at the front of the squad room and barked, “We have to get a grip on this case. A clue. A witness. A theory that holds water. As you know, Boxer is lead investigator. Boxer—no one goes home until we have something with legs.”
We were all with him. Where were Carly, Adele, and Susan? No freaking idea. A death clock was ticking, and the dozen investigators in the homicide squad were working nonstop and hoping beyond reason that the schoolteachers would be found alive.
Cindy, one of my best friends, is a crime reporter at the
San Francisco Chronicle.
The first time I met her, she was covering a savage double murder and had finagled her way into the crime scene.
crime scene. In the end, she helped me solve the case and we bonded for good. It was no surprise to me that she was now making a name as a talent with a big future.
Late as I was that day, I knew Cindy would make use of the found time to return calls, check in with sources, write notes, or draft her story. When I showed up, she’d jump right into the business at hand—or grill me until I gave her a scrap of printable news.
But in return she was likely to tell me something I didn’t know.
sign hanging in Fast ’n Good’s plate-glass window was blinking. I pulled the door open and scanned the place from the vestibule until I saw the mop of blond curls showing over the back of a booth. I strode down the aisle, slid into the banquette across from Cindy, and said, “Hey. Sorry to hold you up.”
I could already see the question in her cornflower-blue eyes.
“You anywhere with the schoolteachers?” she asked.
“Just what I had yesterday, girlfriend. Nothing. Please don’t rub it in.”
Cindy put down her half-eaten BLT and said, “I give the tomato rice four stars.”
I ordered a cup of soup and a grilled cheese with bacon. Then I said, “Whatcha got for me?”
She poked at her cell phone and called up a photo of a woman stooping to hug a large dog that was washing her face with its tongue.
Cindy said, “Look
the girl and dog.”
I enlarged the photo, bringing up the couple in the background walking across a parking lot away from the camera. The male was lanky, taller than the woman, and had spiky hair. The female had turned to look at the male. Her face was in profile. Yellow lines on the asphalt marked parking spots. I could see one side of a dark SUV and almost make out a building at the edge of the frame.
“Okay. What am I looking at?”
“It was sent to me by a confidential source,” Cindy said. “A guy who reads my blog. The attached note said, ‘Carly
Myers and friend. She’s one of your missing teachers, right?’”
I looked closer. I’d seen only a formal head shot of Carly Myers. This snapshot was not in sharp focus and showed only the woman’s profile. But it
I asked Cindy, “Who’s the guy?”
“Don’t know. Yet.”
“Where’s this parking lot? Is this the Bridge?”
“That’s all I have. This picture. My source was taking a shot of his girlfriend and her dog. Later he looks at the picture and recognizes Carly Myers. He’s seen her before.”
“Cin. Don’t publish this until we have Carly, okay? Let’s not get her killed. And you have to hook me up with your source. We need the name of this guy walking with the woman.”
“I get it, but he won’t talk to you. He’s got outstanding warrants.”
“Okay, okay. I’ll talk to him on the phone. That’ll be fine.” For now.
“Let me see what I can do.”
“You can do anything, Girl Reporter.”
She took back her phone and sent the photo to me and a text to her source. My lunch came, and while making the daily special disappear, I looked again at the picture Cindy had sent to me.
The shot had been taken at night. Fuzzy focus no matter what I did. Maybe it was Carly Myers. Who was the guy? Had he been the last person to see Carly when she left the Bridge? Had she told him where she was going? Had he abducted her?
I told Cindy what assistant dean Karin Slaughter had told me about the three missing women and about Carly Myers in particular.
“Carly’s a sports fan and a history buff. She lives alone. Her parents …” I sighed, thinking about them. “They said as far as they knew, she wasn’t seeing anyone right now.”
I forwarded the photos of the three teachers to Cindy. She’d get them into the
today with a request to the public for help. This posting would bring out the kooks, flood our tip lines with 99 percent nonsense. But 1 percent might pay off. Maybe there was still time to bring the women home—alive.
Cindy said, “Hang on.”
She showed me a text she’d just gotten. The sender’s name was Kev32 and the message read,
I should have the boyfriend’s name in 1 hr.
We had apple pie with our coffee, and I insisted on paying for lunch. It was fast ’n good and, for a real lead, damned cheap.
Joe watched Anna start up her car and head up Fulton and take a left on Steiner.
Only after she’d turned the corner did he drive to his office.
Joe believed everything Anna had told him about the brutalization, the terror, the repeated gang rapes, the murder of her family and nearly all of the men in Djoba.
He had only one question: Was the man coming down the front steps of a fancy house on Fell Street Slobodan Petrović, or had Anna superimposed her searing memories onto a person who resembled the monster she would never forget?
Joe didn’t have enough information. But he would get it.
He parked his car on Golden Gate, walked two blocks to the FBI’s office building, and entered through the glass doors. He passed through security and took the elevator to his floor, preoccupied with Anna’s story, his mind on his computer.
Joe thumbed in the code to his office, flipped on the lights, hung up his coat behind the door.
His office was functional, no pictures or knickknacks, nothing personal about it. He had a standard wooden desk, a high-tech computer on the desk’s return, a TV affixed to the facing wall, one side chair, a flag standing in the corner, and a window to his right with a thirteenth-floor view of the city.
He booted up his PC, transferred the picture he’d taken of “Petrović” twenty minutes before, and studied the enlarged photo. If this was Slobodan Petrović, then at 8:14 that morning Joe had been within yards of a monster guilty of genocide.
But the picture was disappointing.
He’d known that he’d caught Petrović at an angle, but what he saw on his monitor was a slimmer wedge of the man’s face than he remembered.
Petrović’s longish hair fell over his eyes, and worse, his hand and cell phone covered most of his cheek and ear. Petrović had been looking down, watching his step, causing folds of his neck to gather under his chin, further distorting his profile.
Joe was exasperated. He’d missed an opportunity, but still, if he’d stepped in to take a better shot, Petrović would have seen him do it.
No good would have come of that.
Joe focused on what he had.
The shapes of Petrović’s head and nose were distinctive.
He opened FACE, the agency’s facial recognition software, and imported the image of the “husky, red-faced hog.” The program could identify a partial image with 85 percent accuracy. If Petrović’s mug was in federal databases or those of sixteen states, FACE could nail him.
Joe stared at the screen as the program did its work, but when the run concluded, only three marginal matches had been retrieved. None were positive. None were Petrović.
Joe went back to Interpol’s Criminal Information System, a global criminal database, and after typing in Petrović’s name, he found several photographs like the one in the ragged newspaper clipping Anna had carried with her.
Documents and hundreds of pages about Petrović’s military history and arrest downloaded, as well as transcripts of translated police interviews. The transcripts were heavily redacted. Why? A fast look through them told Joe that Petrović had denied every charge—the killings, the rapes, the torture—claiming that he was just a soldier.
He’d been misidentified. They had the wrong guy.
Joe had heard this same heinous crap from guilty criminals over the long history of his career. And without evidence, denials could work, even for red-faced, red-handed killers.
In Petrović’s case, there were mountains of bodies. And there were survivors like Anna who surely would have testified. How had stonewalling gotten the Butcher of Djoba released for lack of evidence?
Only one thing made sense to Joe. Petrović had been the witness. He must have testified against higher-ranking officers who had, in fact, been tried for war crimes and convicted. If this was true, he’d made himself one hell of a deal.
After his release, Petrović might have changed his name and gone far away from the scenes of his crimes.
It looked to Joe like that’s what he’d done.
Joe’s day wasn’t going as he had hoped.
His concentration had been derailed by the briefing from Craig Steinmetz, the San Francisco field office supervisor. The meeting was about three private school teachers who’d been missing for two days—Lindsay’s case, Joe knew. There was no clue as to their whereabouts, and the SFPD was asking for help.
Joe would have liked to jump on board, but other agents were willing and able, and he had made a promise to Anna.
When the meeting ended, he went back to his office and tried to get back to work. But there were more interruptions.
The director called from DC and got right to the point. A domestic terrorism plot Joe had uncovered months ago needed his attention. Now. The suspect was American born, connected through Syria to an actor high up in a terrorist chain of command. Phone messages had been deciphered. A truck had been rented. But nothing had pinned the tail on Greg Stassi, the American donkey.
Stassi was in custody but wasn’t forthcoming. Without direct evidence leading to him or a confession, he would be released in forty-eight hours.
The director said, “Molinari, you know Stassi. He might talk to you.”
Two days ago Joe would have gotten on the next flight to DC and met with the kid. Today he told the director, “Marty, this is a bad time. I might be able to kick free in a week or so, but I’m on the brink of something here. I can’t get out of it. I’m sorry.”
Petrović wasn’t a case or even a file folder. Joe had never misled the director before. Then again, he’d never before promised a survivor of ethnic cleansing that he would try to nail a killer, let alone one as monstrous as the Butcher of Djoba.
Joe was 90 percent convinced that the man on Fell Street was Slobodan Petrović. But without independent verification, he couldn’t prove it, even to himself.
He pulled the phone toward him and called Hai Nguyen, a top FBI forensics tech at Quantico, then forwarded two photos to him. One, Petrović’s ICC mug shot; and the second, this morning’s partial of Petrović’s face.
“I’ll take a look, Joe.”
“Thanks, Hai. And—”
“I know. Right now.”
After getting a fresh cup of coffee, Joe resumed researching the man who was accused of slaughtering hundreds if not thousands of Bosnian civilians.
File names filled his screen and Joe opened them all. Every
document added nuance, color, and data to what he already knew: Where Petrović had been born, his brutal upbringing and punishing military service, hints of what had led him to become a mass murderer.
Fact: After the end of the war Slobodan Petrović had been captured on the run, charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity, and indicted in the International Criminal Court. Then the charges had been dropped. He’d been released and his criminal record closed.
Supposition: Sometime later he’d come to America, where he’d bought or rented a house and a car in San Francisco.
Joe zeroed in on that.
He ran the poor-quality photo he’d taken of Petrović through the DMV database and wasn’t surprised that he didn’t get a hit. So he called Hai Nguyen again.
“How’s it going, Hai?”
“Your mail, Joe. Open it.”
Nguyen’s reconstructed photo looked like the pictures of Petrović he’d retrieved from the military files. It was an astonishingly good likeness and quite usable.
Joe hung up and entered the picture into the DMV database. A driver’s license appeared on his screen. It was the man he’d seen on Fell Street, but his name was not Slobodan Petrović.
It was Antonije Branko.
Joe was focused, streaming along a tunnel of concentration, the zone where he felt most comfortable.
Once he had a name with a photo, it didn’t take long to get into all that followed: tax rolls, parking tickets, and records of a house on Fell Street sold to Antonije Branko a year ago.
Now Joe had something tangible.
He enjoyed a few seconds of elation while analyzing this new information. Most likely before he’d left Bosnia, Petrović had changed his name to another Serbian name that gave him plausible deniability. If he was ever recognized here or there, he could say, “Petrović and I were from the same village. He might be a third cousin. Many of us
Joe’s illuminating thought was supplanted by one more urgent.
He bent to his keyboard and quickly searched the SFPD database for
He found him listed as a person of interest who had been seen affiliating with known criminals in “crime-prone locations”—bars, girly clubs, dodgy neighborhoods.
Branko had parked in those neighborhoods in his pricey midnight-blue Jaguar. He had been brought in for questioning on two minor drug cases, for purchasing Molly without intent to distribute. Seasoned narcotics investigators had failed to lay a finger on him. No arrests. No indictments.
It looked to Joe like Petrović used go-betweens and buffers in his work, and so far he hadn’t left any fingerprints. That he’d obscured his face with his phone and hand while walking down the front steps of his house now seemed calculated and deliberate.
But Joe couldn’t see any cause for the FBI to bring him in for questioning.
If Petrović had
changed his name in Bosnia, gotten a passport and a visa as Branko, come to the USA and applied for a green card, and gotten a driver’s license as Branko—none of this was a crime.
But in Joe’s opinion, people didn’t change very much.
Petrović hadn’t left all of those bodies in Djoba and come to the US determined to live a new life as a choirboy. As Anna had asked, where was he getting his money?
The thing to do was to let the fish run. Watch him, track him, and if he was involved in illegal activities, reel him in. Beach him.
Joe leaned back in his chair, clasped his hands behind his neck, and stared at the acoustic-tile ceiling.
He couldn’t stop thinking about Anna. Her story had gripped him, and he was worried for her. He wanted to put Slobodan Petrović away. If he attempted to make this case official without any reason to open a case on Branko, he’d be shut down.
But if he didn’t help Anna, she could get herself killed.