Sixteen chapters.
Sixteen writers.
One thriller.

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Previously: Brown goes to the newspaper to pick up the cell phone the killer sent Sandra. He asks why the killer contacted her. Sandra’s editors decide to run a story about the phone and its clues.

Chapter 6 – Close Eye On You


Sandra’s head was buzzing, her fingers icy and stiff as she hit the “Save” button. The pressure to get the story right and to cope with her personal connection to the case had put her into adrenaline overdrive. Not to mention she was already 10 minutes past the deadline Doug had given her.

But the story was done. Readers would wake up to the news that a serial killer was in their midst.

Pulling off her headphones, she shouted across the desk to her editor. “It’s in. At least as in as it’s gonna be tonight.”

As she leaned back, blowing out a sigh of exhaustion, her iPhone lit up. On it, a blurry still-life of her best friend, lipstick smeared, holding a red plastic cup cheering the camera. Abby, on the beer-soaked night they graduated.

She tapped the button to take the call. “Abby? Oh, Abs. I need a drink. Stat.”

“So get your sorry ass over here. First round’s on me, Sand,” said Abby. “It’s tequila-thirty and you’re late,” she said.

“Be there before you can lick the salt off the rim,” Sandra said. She flicked her computer screen to “Sleep” mode, grabbed her purse and gave a mock salute to Doug. “I’ll be at Maya. Ping me if you have any questions. But I trust you,” she said, as the editor nodded, head firmly buried in his computer screen.

Driving to Sonoma and parking beside the Plaza, she couldn’t help but shudder at the thought that a dead man had been found there just a few days ago. But what really raised goose bumps was the fact that the killer had reached out to her.

Why me? she asked herself, stepping past the galleries and real estate offices on East Napa Street. I’m no one. I’ve been on the cop beat like 10 minutes, and a killer’s trying to play cat and mouse with me? For an instant the whole thing felt thrilling, like a CSI episode. But Sandra didn’t go for drama, and quickly pushed it out of her head.

Opening the door to Maya at the southeast corner of the Plaza, a blast of cool air hit her cheeks. Followed by the smell of chips, salsa and bad cologne. Okay, so it was one of the few places in Sonoma you could actually get picked up. Abby was already installed on her usual barstool, and waved Sandra over. Four shot glasses sat in front of her. Two were empty.

“Drink up, you’re late,” Abby said. “Then tell me all your troubles, because you look like absolute hell.”

She downed the shots, pounding the glasses one, two, on the well-worn bar, then sifted through the events of the day, barely taking a breath. Abby was always a good listener, especially when she was drunk. But just as Sandra was finishing the recap, Abby’s eyes shifted, widening and looking behind Sandra. “Uh, I think we have company.”

It was Brown. He’d followed her.

“Fancy meeting you here,” he said to Sandra, sidling up to the bar next to her.

“Yeah, fancy that,” Abby said, raising her eyebrow. “Detective Brown, I presume?” Abby had a knack for connecting the dots of Sandra’s life. Having lived in Sonoma County most of her life, she knew most of the players, too. “So wait,” Abby said before the detective could get a word in. “What I can’t figure out in all this is why you’re on the case? Isn’t this something for the local cops?”

Brown flinched. “The town of Sonoma contracts with the Sheriff’s Office for police services. So we handle all their crimes. So Sandra, can we talk somewhere?”

“We can talk right here, Brown,” Sandra said, standing her ground. It had been a long day, and a nosy detective just wasn’t on the agenda.

“Sure. Here’s the deal, kid. I think this guy wants something from you. Maybe even knows you. You jilted anyone around here lately? Maybe played a little too hard to get?” Brown leaned in a bit too close for comfort, with a snakelike grin that Sandra had seen a hundred times from a hundred different guys.

Sandra inhaled, about to level the playing field. She hadn’t worked this hard to have some yokel with a badge start making assumptions.

“Listen,” she started. But before the next word came out, Brown’s head snapped around at the sound of a scream.

“Fire! Fire!” shouted a woman, running into the restaurant. “Call 911! A car just exploded on East Napa!”

An orange glow flickered across the street as flames shot into the air. “Oh sh–,” said Brown, looking out the window. “It’s mine.” He moved toward the door, but twisted his gaze back toward Sandra. “That’s your pal out there, isn’t it? He seems to keep a close eye on you.”

Next Time (May 14): “Listening In,” by Penngrove writer/editor Ana Manwaring. The killer sends Sandra searching for a new clue. Brown means to have it.

Heather Irwin is the host of The Press Democrat’s Bite Club Eats, www.biteclubeats.com.




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