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The 18th Abduction
By Maxine Paetro
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Joe and I were in the back seat of a black sedan, cruising along a motorway from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol to the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
The sky was gray, but shafts of light pierced the clouds, lighting up brilliant swaths of tulips in fields along A44. I had never been to the Netherlands, but I couldn’t just open myself up to its charm. We were not on vacation, and this was no holiday.
I’m a homicide cop with the San Francisco PD. I own five pairs of blue trousers, matching blazers, and a rack of oxford cloth button-front shirts. I favor flat-heeled work shoes and customarily pull my blond hair into a ponytail.
Today I was wearing a severe black skirt suit with pearls, heels, and a fresh haircut—the full-court press.
My husband, Joe, a former federal law enforcement officer and counterterrorism operative, is now one of the top risk assessment consultants in the field and works from home. In deference to the occasion, he’d swapped out his khakis and pullovers for a formal gray suit with an understated blue striped tie.
Formality was required.
A case had brought us here, and not just any case but one of monumental, even global, significance. We both felt deeply invested in the outcome. My emotions veered between anxiety and anticipation, excitement and dread.
In less than an hour we would be seated in the ICC, an intergovernmental organization with the jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for the international offenses of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.
How would the court rule on Slobodan Petrović?
By the end of the day, we would know.
As Joe and I entered The Hague’s International Zone, we saw demonstrators crowding the roadside with signs and banners, chanting. I gathered that they were rallying for human rights and justice for war crimes.
The skies darkened and a fine mist came down, wafting across Oude Waalsdorperweg, the road leading to the International Criminal Court.
Jan, our driver, slowed to avoid pedestrians. The sedan behind us did the same.
Joe was staring out the window, but it seemed to me that he was looking inward, remembering how this had started. He caught my reflection in the glass, turned, and gave me a tight-lipped smile.
I nodded and squeezed Joe’s hand.
“I’ve been looking forward to this. Feels like forever.”
The car swept up to the curb, beside a plaza with steps leading to the compound of square glass-and-concrete buildings. Jan got out, unfurled a large umbrella, and opened our door.
The sedan behind us stopped, and the two prominent attorneys from San Francisco got out, put up their umbrellas, and helped Anna Sotovina, a woman of forty-five and our friend, out onto the pavement. The five of us walked quickly up the steps and across the plaza toward the entrance.
I was surprised to see that a mob of people had gathered beneath an overhang of the main building. They saw us, too, and unfurling their umbrellas, they ran through the rain and swarmed three-deep around us.
I recognized the names of European press outlets on their jackets. Clearly, they recognized us, too, from the media coverage back home, which had been followed closely in Europe.
“Sergeant Boxer, I’m Marie Lavalle with Agence France-Presse,” an unsmiling young woman said to me. Water rolled off the brim of her rain hat. “Will you give me a comment, please? What do you expect to happen in the court today?”
I backed away but she persisted. “A few words,” she said. “A quote for our readers.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “This just isn’t a sound-bite kind of thing.”
Lavalle was edged aside by a florid man holding a tape recorder.
“Madame, Hans Schultz. Der Spiegel. It is said that you are here today for a personal reason. Is that correct?”
Before I could answer, another reporter backed into me and shoved a microphone in front of Joe’s face.
“Nigel Warwick, sir. BBC. I’ve followed your career, Mr. Molinari. FBI, Homeland Security, CIA. Are you representing government interests today?”
Cameramen moved in.
“My wife and I are here as private citizens,” Joe snapped, turning his back, putting his arm around me, and sheltering me from the rain.
We pressed on toward the entrance and had almost reached it when I felt a hand on my sleeve. I turned, prepared to shake off a reporter, but it was Anna. Her face was shadowed by the hood of her coat, but I could see that her eyes were swollen from crying.
My eyes watered, too.
I reached out to her, and she hugged me very hard, then hugged Joe.
When they separated, I said, “Trust me. This is the right thing to do.”
She said, “I do trust you, Lindsay, and I trust Joe. But I know the system. Even in this courtroom, justice will not be done. This has been my experience. Americans put faith in justice. We do not.”
The mob of press, along with dozens of other interested parties, closed in and pushed us forward. Joe gripped my hand.
I said to my husband, “If this goes wrong, it’s going to break my heart.”
Five Years Earlier
Anna zipped up a lightweight jacket over her sweater and slacks, wrapped a scarf over her hair, and tied it under her chin to hide the hand-size burn scar on the left side of her face.
She had to shop for dinner before it got dark, and if she went by bike, she could slip through the rush-hour traffic. She slung her backpack across her shoulders, locked the door behind her, then bumped her bike down two flights of stairs from her studio apartment and out the front door into a mild sixty degrees. She carried the bike across the stoop to the street, where she mounted it and pushed off.
As she always did, she took in the beauty of the vast greensward of Alamo Square Park across from her apartment on Fulton Street and felt truly lucky to be alive and here in America.
It never got old.
She passed the lovely old Victorian houses, San Francisco’s Painted Ladies, and turned right onto Fell Street, the straightaway that would take her to the grocery store. She rode several blocks before pulling up at an intersection. Waiting for the light to turn green, Anna saw something that she knew just couldn’t be.
A large, florid man smoking a cigar was coming down the steps of one of the Victorian homes. The sight of him was like a body blow, as if she’d been struck by a car.
Everything went black. Anna’s knees buckled, but even as the blood left her head, she dug deep, gripped the handlebars, and steadied herself.
When she looked again, he was still there, pausing on the steps to relight his cigar, giving her seconds to make sure that she wasn’t hallucinating or having a psychotic break with reality. She could be mistaken.
Anna fixed her gaze on the devil puffing on his cigar. His hair was gray now. But his face hadn’t changed at all: same full lips, broad unlined brow, thick neck. And she would never forget the shape of his body, the way he walked—stiff and deliberate, like a bear on its hind legs.
It was Slobodan Petrović, a man seen in her night terrors and, before that, in real life.
Anna’s brain was on fire. Flickering images came into her mind: Petrović standing on the rubble of what had been an apartment house. He bent to hug a little girl, wrapped his arms around her before raising his beaming face to the crowd and the cameras. His voice was enthusiastic and kind.
“If you put down your weapons, we will protect you. I promise this to you.”
This speech was accompanied by the ongoing racketa-rack-rack sound of gunfire, the screams of babies, the air-shattering explosion of bombs. She remembered another promise Petrović had made: “We will shell you to the edge of madness.”
In that, he had kept his word.
Anna locked in on the present: Petrović, walking down steps on Fell Street in his fine American clothing, smoking a cigar, alive and well in San Francisco.
Not seeing her at all.
A horn blew impatiently behind her, breaking her concentration. The light had turned green. Petrović opened the door to his Jaguar and got inside.
He didn’t wait for the slow stream of traffic to pass. He wrenched the wheel, gunned the engine, and cut off the car just behind him.
Horns blew furiously, and Anna watched the Jaguar gathering speed. She gripped the handlebars of her bike and shoved off, following Petrović, trying to shut out the overlapping memories of his brutality—but she could not.
Those images still lived inside of her.
Petrović wouldn’t get away with what he had done.
Not this time. Not again.
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.
She was 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 racketa-rack-rack of artillery.
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 on JFK Drive 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 cup, 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 K. STROOP.
I made the introductions.
“Sergeant Boxer,” I said. “Homicide. My partner, Inspector Conklin.”
“Homicide?” Stroop said. “Hey, no. 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 Karin Slaughter 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.
- "Everything you love about Patterson and the Women's Murder Club -- smart characters, shocking twists, and a villain so evil you count down to the very last page to discover what will happen next." -- Lisa Gardner, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the D.D. Warren series
- On Sale
- Oct 1, 2019
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Grand Central Publishing