The scheming killer is back, still fixated on the young woman reporter.
But this time he isn’t prepared for how his murders will put her in harm’s way.
Chapter 11 – At the Fondo
By ERIC GNECKOW
Will this day ever end?
Doug Smith sighed, a noise joined only by the dull hum of his computer and the depressing staccato creaks of his reclining office chair. He rubbed his left elbow, which he now realized had spent much of the last hour pressed firmly against a hard desk while his chin had sat lazily on a loosely balled fist.
Now wondering how long he had stared idly at his computer monitor, Smith looked sideways towards the long, parallel windows lining the darkened space of the Press Democrat newsroom. Sonoma County’s sun had come back for its occasional October death throws, pushing an intensifying heat that would later bake downtown’s buildings and sidewalks into a hot, glowing white. It was the kind of weekend that brought choking throngs to revel on the banks of the Russian River, drawing out-of-towners that seemed ubiquitously immune to news of the Sonoma Squares Killer’s resurgence.
Inside, the desolate newsroom was quiet, cool and, to an editor who made his name as young reporter covering East Bay gangs, deeply boring. Taking the weekend shift was meant to offer a reprieve for an editor who had overseen the intense coverage and follow-up of the recent winery bombing. But the contrast of a day where the entire planet seemed devoted to carefree frivolity left Smith longing for blaring chaos from the police scanner.
He attempted to return his attention to the story that awaited editing, but he was still unable to ignore last week’s edition with the front-page photo that had clearly shown Sandra and Abby amid the chaos following the winery explosion.
Why hasn’t she returned my calls? He frequently joked that he’d offer a raise to the next reporter who managed to have a serial killer on speed dial. Save for recent events, the months following Sandra’s decision to leave for a new job in San Francisco had been awfully quiet.
A new pain shot through his elbow, bringing his attention back to his monitor and the story recently filed from the field. “In Levi’s Gran Fondo, Riders Face Heat and Hill Alike,” the headline read.
The story, by new reporter Greg Campbell, depicted a scene more than an hour earlier that has become a classic image in Sonoma County – a group of 7,500 colorfully clad cyclists, standing astride their bicycles and stretching for blocks behind the cycling event’s starting line on Stony Point Road. Music blared near the line, ceding to an excited and nervous tension that grew increasingly apparent farther from the epicenter of the event. For many of those riders, an international group of both hardcore enthusiasts and ambitious first-timers, a 100-mile-plus mountainous slog stood between them, the Pacific Ocean, and the hilly journey home.
It had taken more than half an hour for the groups to leave the starting area, a sea of colorful clothing and a diorama of bobbing helmets. Thousands of individuals rode shoulder-to-shoulder before splitting off on different routes, and the cacophony of mechanical pops and stuttering chains as those riders upshifted their bikes and pointed towards the mountains was an audible marker for the volume of effort that was now underway.
Cambell, a young man whose award-winning work in graduate school had helped him land his reporting gig right out of college, had been charged with capturing the ambiance at the start of an event that had grown to be a touchstone of Sonoma County’s cycling culture. As Smith looked over the story, he considered that Campbell by this time probably would be reporting from a stop along the higher-altitude stretch known as King Ridge, a destination that many considered the marquee of the notorious ride.
While the 8 a.m. start was often chilly for the town of Santa Rosa, the brutal sun had already burned away what little marine layer protection had hung thin above the riders. Smith read Campbell’s copy explaining how the excess tension had encouraged many riders to go full-blast from the start. He wondered how they might later feel while riding along the searing King Ridge as the road swam for relentless miles along khaki grassland and the occasional thirsty vineyard.
Campbell had planned to entice a few riders to take a break on the desolate stretch, giving him a chance to ask what motivated them to take part in the event’s most difficult route. Their comments would fuel a fuller story for the next day’s print edition.
As Smith’s mouse cursor hovered over the “publish” button for this first online story, the phone rang. It was Campbell. “You caught me just in time, Greg,” Smith said, expecting some last-minute revision.
Campbell sounded like he was just wrapping up his talk with someone, quickly silencing them as he turned to talk into the receiver. “Doug, listen,” he said hurriedly. “I think someone just grabbed that woman reporter, Sandra Cordero, and her friend.”
Smith felt his body tense as he heard Sandra’s name. “Greg, where are you?” he said. Time seemed to move slowly – the four-word sentence felt like it took minutes to finally say.
“I’m on a landline,” Campbell said. “Lousy reception up here. I’m at a house on King Ridge. Greg, I saw something…I didn’t know who to call.”
“Okay, slow down and tell me what you saw.”
“I saw Sandra and her friend…Abby, isn’t it? They were up here on the ridge when I drove to the spot I planned, OK? And I saw this Ford Focus on the side of the road, but I didn’t think much of it,” he said. “I pulled off on a turnout, expecting to wait for some riders. But I wasn’t far, maybe 60 yards away, just blocked a little from their view by a big clump of bushes…”
Campbell became distracted by the talk around him, his voice trailing off amid the excited murmurs of others who presumably lived in the house. Smith could hear him talking in muffled tones to others, and he made out the world “police” in their conversation. He yelled into his receiver, “Greg!”
“Sorry, Doug. Listen, I recognized them from the photos of the winery bombing. They were alone, talking to a guy on a bicycle. I couldn’t hear what they were saying. He looked legit, but couldn’t have been part of the event – the best of those guys were still 15 minutes away. The women looked like they were upset, maybe yelling at him about something, but he was really calm. Then this van pulled up behind them.”
He continued, “Two guys stepped out of the van. They walked right up and started talking to the women, and then things got bad. One of these guys grabbed Abby by the arm. She started screaming. The other guy went for Sandra, but she dodged his reach and started into the road. The cyclist dropped his bike, grabbed her and dragged her back. They put both women and the guy’s bike in the van and sped off. I tried but I didn’t get the plates.”
Smith cursed aloud. “Stay on the line.” His free hand migrated to the keypad of another phone. Muscle memory from the time of the Sonoma Squares Killer kicked in, dialing Detective Brown’s cell phone. It was ringing before he set down the receiver for the line with Campbell.
Eric Gneckow is a reporter at the North Bay Business Journal in Santa Rosa, a sister publication to the Press Democrat. He spends his free time exploring Sonoma County by bicycle, where all roads seem to end at a craft brewery. Or two.
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Edited by ROBERT DIGITALE and FREDERICK WEISEL
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