Sixteen chapters.
Sixteen writers.
One thriller.

To see all the chapters and writers, click here.

Previously: Detective Brown visits the murder scenes in Healdsburg and Sonoma. A colleague tells Brown that the Sonoma victim’s cell phone is missing.

Chapter 4 – I Pray Sic


As new cop reporter Sandra Cordero tried to remember which of the paper cups on her desk was yesterday’s coffee and which was this morning’s, she tapped the padded mailer absent-mindedly with her fingertips.

The one on the right, she decided. She took a sip, grimaced, then popped the lid on the cup to spit it back out.

No, not that one.

Sandra tossed the cup in the garbage and reached for the padded envelope. She didn’t yet look at it. Instead, she tucked her long, brown hair behind her ears, put on her headset and dialed the phone.

In her mid-20s, Sandra was striking and ambitious. After three years as a general assignment reporter, she had been itching to get assigned the police beat. And now, with her morning half over and nothing more to report than a guy who’d stolen a pastrami sandwich, she found herself tapping her fingertips and feet and grinding her teeth.

Probably a good thing I didn’t finish that coffee, she thought.

She had written decent stories about the suspicious deaths of two people in two small towns. But the follow-up articles had been exercises in frustration. After a long day in Healdsburg, she managed to track down a few folks who knew Matilda Pismo. But her phone calls to Lake County produced only one person who was even vaguely familiar with Wally Spittleheimer. She told herself she would keep working the story as time allowed, but in the meantime she needed to produce some copy.

It was two rings into her call that she really looked at the envelope for the first time. Her brow furrowed. “Attn: Sandra Cordero” was written on the front with a red Sharpie. But it wasn’t her name that drew her interest.

Sandra hung up the phone as abruptly as she dropped the envelope. Her heart pounded, though she couldn’t separate how much was from fear and how much was from her instinct that this might be a story.

In the upper-left corner of the padded mailer was Sandra’s home address.

With public records and the Internet, she knew such a thing was easy to get. Still, why use her address at all? Quickly she concluded: It had been addressed that way to get her attention.

Without a name or valid return address, Sandra considered whether she should open it. Then she snatched up the envelope.

“Curiosity killed the journalist,” she muttered, even as she squeezed the envelope to guess its contents. Hard. Small. She put it to her ear to see if she could hear anything ticking and immediately felt ridiculous.

Sandra pulled the mailer’s tab to release the contents. Heck, if it was a bomb, at least they’d have a local story for A1.

It wasn’t a bomb. An older model cell phone, red with curved edges, slid from the envelope onto her desk.

Sandra flipped open the phone. Her finger hovered above the power button. Turning on someone else’s phone felt intrusive, even if the sender had made it clear it was intended for her. But she had no choice, really – the phone was a communication device, so what had the sender wanted to communicate?

She jabbed the button. A moment later, an alert popped on the screen. A new text message: “I thought you might appreciate this.” The picture within the text message was small, slightly blurry. Shades of pale pink, a flash of red. She quickly read the rest of the text, heart still racing, then opened the gallery of photos stored on the phone.

There were four. The first was the one in the text message: a woman in a red dress. She appeared dead.

What’s that on her arm? Sandra wondered.

The next photo answered her question: The word “Sonoma” was scrawled there.

Sandra skipped to the next two photos. Another corpse, this time a man’s. Another close-up of a lifeless arm, this one defiled with the word “Sebastopol.”

She was no expert, but the words on the flesh were written in the same blocky style as the address on the envelope. As she re-read the text, Sandra held her right hand with her left to steady them both. A killer may have sent her this phone, and this killer knew her name, her address and where she worked. He had targeted her, just as surely as he had targeted his victims. And why had he sent her the photos? Was he looking to get caught? Or did he just want to be famous?

In addition to her anxiety, she felt curiosity over the killer’s identity – and outrage over what he’d apparently done. Sandra scooped up the phone and headed for the city editor’s desk.

She skipped the greeting. “I think I just got a gift from a killer.”

When her editor, Doug Smith, looked up, Sandra dropped the phone on his desk. “I got this in the mail,” she said. “There are photos on it, I’m pretty sure of dead bodies. And a text.”

Doug stared at the phone but didn’t touch it.

“What do we do with it?” she asked. Then, afraid he might hand over the story to someone with more experience, she added: “This is my story.”

Doug spoke for the first time: “What did the text say?”

“It alerted me to the photos.” She paused. “There was something else. It also says, ‘Do your job. Save a life. One more thing: I pray sic.’ ”

Sandra felt the pressure of the first two lines, and the frustration of not understanding the third. Why “sic?”  She also felt that rush she got when she knew she was first on a story.

Even as she contemplated the text, Sandra wondered if there already was another corpse somewhere in the county, with another town marked on its arm. Sandra’s instincts told her that if there wasn’t, there would be. Soon.

Next Time (May 7): “Why Sandra?” by Windsor author Linda C. McCabe. Detective Brown comes to the newspaper seeking answers.

A native Californian and Sonoma County resident for 25 years, Heather Chavez is a graduate of SRJC and UC Berkeley, with a bachelor’s degree in English. She currently works as a copy editor/page designer for The Press Democrat and also writes the TV blog at pressdemocrat.com. As a mother of two who works full time, her time isn’t usually her own, but when it is, Heather enjoys reading, writing suspense novels, watching “Walking Dead” and “Game of Thrones,” and taking much-needed naps with her Chihuahua and tabby cat.




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