A SCHEMING KILLER –
A REPORTER IN THE CROSSHAIRS
Previously: Abby and Sandra decode the riddle: “I Pray Sic.”
Chapter 11 – Tempting Offer
By CHRIS COURSEY
Sandra sank into the lumpy sofa at the coffee shop across from the PD, and opened the newspaper on her lap.
“Killer’s code points to Windsor as next crime scene.”
The headline screamed across the top of the front page. She felt a little blush of pride, and then a little flip of her stomach. She hoped to hell that she and Abby were right about the code.
Her phone buzzed on the table next to her latte. By now, she knew the number. It was him.
“Way to go. Saved a girl on the Town Green. Now tell me the next city or someone else dies.”
She stared at the screen. It dawned on her that she had been drawn into a game she didn’t want to play. What if she got it wrong? For that matter, what if she got it right? Where did this end?
She typed the word into her phone, tentatively: “petaluma?” She hit “send.”
She startled, kicked the table and watched a small wave of brown latte splash out of her cup. Det. Zach Brown stood over her, a little closer than she liked, and grinned.
“Feeling a little jumpy?” he asked. Sandra looked away from his smirk.
“He’s watching me,” she said, gazing out the big pane of glass toward Mendocino Avenue.
“That’s part of what I want to talk to you about,” Brown said, pulling off his jacket and hanging it over the back of a chair. “Lemme grab a cup of joe and I’ll be right back.”
She watched his broad back as he walked over to the counter, wondering if a big, strong detective ever experienced that creepy feeling she kept getting on the back of her neck when she thought of the killer spying on her. As the tingling crept up from under her collar once again, her phone buzzed in her hand. Again, she startled, kicked the table and sent another latte tsunami over the rim of her cup.
“Guess again but do not text. Put it in the paper.”
“Fan mail?” Brown asked as he sat in the straight-back chair next to the couch.
Sandra shoved the phone into her bag. “My editor,” she lied. “He wants to know what I’ve got for tomorrow.”
She hesitated. She figured that Brown was reading every text that came out of the cell phone now in the killer’s hands, but he hadn’t seen this one – yet. Brown didn’t know the killer had just credited her for saving the life of a potential victim in Windsor and had given her the challenge of stopping another killing in – where? Penngrove? Rohnert Park? … Maybe she should tell him, but for now she was enjoying the feeling of knowing something the detective had yet to find out.
“I think I know what you should do,” Brown said.
“You do?” she said, feeling like a kid coming home late after a night of partying, only to find her father at the door with a knowing look in his eye.
But Brown wasn’t reading her mind. He had his own agenda.
“Can we talk off the record here?” he said.
She locked eyes with him for a moment. “OK.”
“OK. You know the guy is using that phone, because he’s texting you. But what you might not know is that he’s turning the phone on for a minute or two each day.”
“That’s what you want off the record? Give me a break. Who cares?”
“Sandra, we want him to use the phone a little more. That’s what is off the record. And this is off the record too – I think the best way to make that happen is for you to give him a call.”
“Right,” she said, laying on the sarcasm. But the truth was, she’d already considered it – briefly. Then came that text message: “You look good in your blue suit.”
“I don’t want to get that close to this guy,” she said. “I can already feel his eyes on the back of my neck. I don’t want his voice in my ear.”
“I thought you said you needed a story for tomorrow,” Brown teased. “I thought you were a hard-boiled reporter. This guy loves the attention you’re giving him; I’ll bet he would fall all over himself to tell you all about how smart he is and how he’s got us cops all tied up in knots.”
“Why do you want me to do this? Are you tracing that phone?”
Brown sat up straight, his face sober. “Kid, no matter how far off the record we are, I can’t divulge investigative detail or technique. I’ve got to keep that strictly in-house.”
“OK, Detective,” said Sandra, mimicking his official mien. “Then let’s go back on the record. Here’s my response to your proposal: I can’t divulge journalistic detail or technique. If you want to know what I’m doing, read it in the paper.”
She grabbed her bag and stood up to leave.
“C’mon Sandra – don’t be like that,” Brown whined. “Are you gonna call him?”
“I know you’re already monitoring this guy’s phone. Keep listening. If I call, you’ll know.”
“OK, be that way,” Brown said, picking up the paper Sandra had left on the table. “But Sandra, do me one favor, all right?”
Chris Coursey worked for more than 30 years as a daily newspaper journalist, and was an award-winning news columnist for the Press Democrat from 1999 to 2007. He has lived in Santa Rosa since 1980. Follow him on his blog: Coursey.
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