Sixteen chapters.

Sixteen writers.
One thriller.

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Previously: Sandra swims laps at Santa Rosa’s Ridgway Swim Center. As she leaves, the killer sends her a text message and reveals he was watching her. He gives her the clues she was unable to retrieve at the Sebastopol bookstore and warns her that someone else will die if she doesn’t solve his riddle.

Chapter 10 – The Riddle


Abby opened the door to find her friend breathless on the doorstep, the blood drained from her face and beads of sweat forming on her brow.

“What’s wrong Sandra? Are you sick? Can I get you anything?” she moved aside as Sandra swept past her, tossing her bag on the couch in the center of the living room. She spun around and faced Abby, her mouth opening, then closing, as she furrowed her brows deep in concentration. “Sandra, seriously. What’s wrong?”

“He’s watching me,” Sandra blurted as she paced the floor.

“What?” Abby shut the door quickly and rushed to her friend. Sandra didn’t have to elaborate on who “he” was. Abby knew full well it was the killer that had been invading her friend’s phone with cryptic text messages. “What do you mean, watching you? Where? When?” She tried to keep fear from dripping into her words. But what if this creep was watching Sandra now? What if he could somehow see right into her apartment?

“At Ridgway,” Sandra said, sinking into a chair and putting her head in her hands. “I was swimming laps there, and just as I was leaving I got a text from him describing what I was wearing.” She ran her hand through her brown hair, letting it fall in waves around her face. “Why haven’t they caught that bastard yet? I just want this to be over! And ‘I pray sic?’ What the hell does it mean? He keeps insisting on it, texting it over and over again. And today’s texts were just as cryptic.”

“What did they say?” Abby asked, leaning on the arm of the couch across from her friend. “Can I read them?”

Sandra pulled the iPhone out and handed it over to Abby, who lit up the screen. She pursed her lips as she reread the clues the killer had sent. “Healdsburg, Sonoma, Sebastopol. Add Cotati. H, S, S, C, and four question marks. Those towns are where the murders happened or at least the towns the killer targeted. Nobody died in Sebastopol, thanks to you.”

“But the question marks, what do they stand for? And what about ‘I pray sic’? How does that fit in?”

A trill ring sounded from the countertop in the kitchen. Abby handed the phone back to Sandra and crossed the room to gather her own phone by the sink, opening it before answering. “Hello? Oh, hi, Mom. No, it’s not really a good time right now. Sandra’s over. Yes, I’ll tell her. I’ll call you tomorrow, OK? I love you, too.” She closed it back up and came back over to the couch. “My mom insisted I tell you hello, and that you really need to come visit her with me sometime.” She tossed her phone on the couch, only to have it bounce off and hit the floor.

“Jeez, Abby,” said Sandra, picking up the phone and eyeing the chipped paint on the side. “This thing has seen better days. You know, they sell phones nowadays that double as computers.”

“Ha, ha, very funny,” Abby smirked as she retrieved the device. “My phone isn’t that archaic. I like using it. And remember, I have my iPad when I need the web.” Smiling, she opened it to make sure it was still working. The smile froze on her face as she looked at the keys, her finger tracing over them lightly. “I think I figured it out. Hand me your phone, Sandra.” Her friend reached over and placed her phone in Abby’s hands. She read the texts once again and studied the keys on her own phone.

“What is it?” Sandra asked. “What did you figure out?”

“You couldn’t have known this, because your phone is newer and has a QWERTY keyboard. But mine is older, like a typical office phone. It’s just like the cell phone the killer sent you, right?”

“I’m not following you. What are you talking about? What did I not see?”

“I pray sic,” Abby said, holding her phone out to Sandra. “It’s the first letter of each city – but not exactly. It’s what he would have typed out using a keypad like mine. Don’t you get it? The decoder he mentioned in the texts was the phone he sent you!” Sandra took the phone out of Abby’s hands and stared at the keys. Suddenly, a wave of recognition washed over her face.

“Oh, my god. How could I have been so stupid? It’s almost too obvious!” Sandra began to hit the keys. “H, S, S, C. When you put it in the phone it autocorrects itself to say ‘I spa’. But when you add the Y, it comes out to ‘I pray’.”

“And the Y must stand for the next city!” Abby said, her face glowing under the sudden epiphany. “But there isn’t a town around here that starts with Y.”

“WXYZ…It has to be W, for Windsor. The next murder is targeted for Windsor!” Sandra shouted, jumping up and clutching Abby’s arms. “But what about the next three letters? We figured out ‘I pray’, but what about ‘sic’?”

“The S could stand for several options. Santa Rosa, Penngrove, Petaluma, Rohnert Park…”

“Before we go any further, we should probably talk to a criminologist and check to see if our theory even pans out. I’ll seek one out first thing in the morning.” Sandra stood up and gave her friend a hug. “Abby, I feel like we’re so much closer to the end of this thing!”

“I know! We might even stop this creep.”

“We may still be a ways from that. Right now I’d just like to know the answers to the other cities. But if we’re right, there’s only one city around here that the Y could represent. It has to be Windsor.”

Next Time: “Tempting Offer,” by Press Democrat Columnist Chris Coursey. Brown gives Sandra a revealing, off-the-record tip about the killer’s habits.

Crissi Langwell  is the Events Queen of 707.pressdemocrat.com and the mom extraordinaire behind SantaRosaMom.com, the Press Democrat’s community for parents. When she’s not carpooling kids to the baseball field, she’s working on her aspiring novel or writing stories about her family at her personal blog winecountrymom.com.




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