He was walking down Stockton past Chang’s market when a bald, heavyset man stopped him.
“You John Mills?”
“Yes. Who are you?”
“Stanley. I got a message for you. Stop bothering Mr. Nicoletti.”
Mills had been to Armand Nicoletti’s office twice to ask about Alice Whitson. He’d been hired to find her after she’d been missing for six days. She was last seen in Toscato’s with Nicoletti. Mills’ cop friend Tony Chen told him SFPD thought Nicoletti was involved in narcotics.
Both times Mills asked Nicoletti about her, he said he left Toscato’s before she did. The bartender and wait staff didn’t remember anything.
Mills went back to Nicoletti’s office. “I’ve been told to stay away from you.”
“Stanley. Big guy. Looked rough.”
Nicoletti shrugged. “Don’t know him. I don’t know who gave him the message.”
“Somebody you do business with?”
Nicoletti smiled. “People I do business with don’t want people to know I do business with them.”
“You wouldn’t know who sent him?”
“No idea. Sorry.”
“You haven’t heard from Whitson?”
“No. If I do, I’ll call you.”
Mills walked back to Stockton and went into Happy Lunch. Yi-An brought him coffee and a note.
“Lady leave this for you. This morning.”
Mills thanked him and read the note. “345B Holman, 3:00. Come alone.”
He called Tony Chen, who asked if he needed backup.
“I don’t expect any trouble.”
That afternoon, Mills drove to 345 Holman and knocked on the door of apartment B at 3:00. A woman he didn’t know cracked the door and asked if he was alone. He nodded. She let him in, and Alice Whitson came out of the bedroom.
“It’s OK, Susan,” Whitson told the woman. She turned to Mills. “Thank you for coming. And for looking for me. I couldn’t let Nick find me.”
“Armand. At the bar I overheard him on the phone. Something about a drug deal. He’s been looking for me.”
A knock on the door. Mills looked at Susan, who shook her head. He told them to go into the bedroom. Mills went to the peephole and saw Stanley holding a black semi-auto pistol.
“Send Whitson out,” Stanley said, “and no one else gets hurt.”
Mills unlocked the door quietly, knelt behind the couch, and drew his .38 from his belt. “The door’s open,” he said.
The door swung open, and Mills heard Stanley ask, “Where are you?”
Mills stood up, holding his gun down behind the couch.
Stanley walked into the apartment and laughed at him scornfully. “Hiding behind the couch, huh?”
“I lost a contact.”
“Right. Where is she?”
“Susan’s in the bedroom,” Mills said.
“You know who I mean.”
“She’s not here.”
“Then why are you here?”
Mills smiled. “To see Susan.”
“Bullshit. Tell her to come out.”
Mills told Susan to come out, and she walked into the living room and over to Mills, who stayed behind the couch.
Stanley asked Susan, “Where’s Alice Whitson?”
Susan looked at Mills, who nodded. “She’s in the bedroom.”
Stanley went into the bedroom, and Mills whispered to Susan to get out. She ran across the living room and out the door. Whitson came into the living room, with Stanley holding her arm. Susan came back in the apartment, with Nicoletti behind her. He told her to stand beside Mills.
Nicoletti smiled at Whitson. “It’s good to see you again, Alice.” He told Stanley to bring her over and grabbed her arm. He told Stanley to take care of Mills and Susan, and walked Whitson out.
Stanley was standing across the coffee table from the couch, smiling. When he raised his gun, Mills pushed Susan down. Stanley looked at her, and Mills shot him in the chest.
Susan was crying as Mills helped her up. She hugged him, shaking. “What about Alice?” she asked frantically.
“We’ll find her.”
Mills heard someone yell in the hall outside the apartment: “John, you OK?”
“Yes. Both of us.” Tony Chen walked in, smiling, followed by Alice Whitson. “Nicoletti’s downstairs, in custody.”
Susan ran to Alice and hugged her. Chen picked up Stanley’s gun and smiled at Mills. “When you say you don’t need backup, I usually figure you do.”