Sixteen chapters.

Sixteen writers.
One thriller.

To see all the chapters and writers, click here.

Previously: Brown tells Sandra the killer would jump at the chance for a phone interview.

Chapter 12 – Sinking Feeling


Sandra sipped her Masala chai latte, took out her phone and then, mindlessly, set it back down. She was about to text a dead man’s cell. Dead man’s cell, she thought. Sounds like a B-rated movie, or a song from one of those heavy-metal bands her half-brother belonged to long ago, when it seemed his primary objective in life was to be loud and unbridled by any need to be in line, in step, or, unfortunately, in tune.

It was exactly because of her having to reside with that amplified rage for so many years that Sandra now craved the peaceful, cerebral confines of a place like “By the Mugg.”

She looked around. Yes, this café across from the PD was her refuge. It was owned by a former probation officer, Jared Mugg, whose Ukranian girlfriend used to design high-end tasting rooms and was a partner in the business before she left him for a cabinet maker in Forestville. But Mugg was left with a serene place. The comfortable chairs, the smell of mocha java mixed with soft jazz and hushed conversations of tables all around. Yes, this was Sandra’s cave. A clean, well-lighted cave.

But it brought no refuge today. There was nothing subdued or satisfying about what she was about to do. She was going to contact a murderer, and she had no idea whether what she was proposing made sense from any number of perspectives, not the least of which was her own safety. But she knew she had reached a point of no return, that point when she was about to do something impetuous and potentially foolhardy. Like the time years earlier when she suddenly leaped from the pier near the Santa Cruz Boardwalk late on a moonless night, only to tell her horrified-yet-relieved friends as she sloshed ashore minutes later that she just knew it “had to be done” to make that summer memorable.

She began thumb-typing. “No more riddles,” she wrote. “Talk to me on record. Or I am done, off story.”

As soon as she pressed the “send” button, regret set in. She needed leverage. But was she pushing him too far? She was dealing with a killer, who appeared to be only using her for publicity. But there was a haunting unknown about what was transpiring, a deep fear that was starting to set in.

She suddenly found herself back in the cold water beneath the Santa Cruz pier. What she never told her friends about that night was that when she plunged into the darkness, she landed in a large kelp bed and quickly found herself so hopelessly tangled in the blades that she had no movement in her legs and, combined with the weight of her laden fleece jacket, was sinking into the inky blackness of Monterey Bay. It was a terrifying moment.

Then guided by something in her memory – perhaps from a lesson about sea otters and kelp or just learning the “dead man’s float” in swim class – she stopped struggling, stretched out her arms and let her buoyancy carry her to the surface. Once there, she took a deep breath and stared into the night sky, thinking about redemption and the obscure things that can save lives, things like otters and dead men.

From that point on, Sandra had a reputation, one she cherished, as being both fearless and unpredictable. But the experience left her with a haunting reminder of that thin line that separates invigorating spontaneity and the kind of foolishness that can leave you sinking.

She picked up her drink and, as she exited, decided not to tell her editor what she had done. No need to give him the opportunity to second guess.

As soon as she was at her desk, her phone squeaked with the arrival of a text message.

“AYOR today 5”

Her pulse quickened. She called out, “Smalls, what’s A-Y-O-R?”

Brett Small, the technology reporter in the next cubicle looked up, headphones on. He lifted his index finger, indicating he was on the phone. She mouthed a “Sorry,” but his head was down, and his hand was scribbling. He lifted a pad of paper. It read: “At Your Own Risk.”

That afternoon, Sandra wrote out a couple of news briefs, lied to her editor that she couldn’t reach the people she needed in order to finish her story on graffiti abatement and grabbed an early dinner. By 5 p.m., she was back at her computer, her palms already sweaty. She had written out some questions, but she knew it unlikely he was going to be straight with her. That’s not this creep’s style. He would make her twist and turn. But she knew anything she got from this guy, even his evasiveness, was material and would move the story.

Her phone rang.

“Newsroom,” she said, forgetting it was her cell. “Uh, Cordero.”

The caller did not respond right away. There was a deep breath.

“How stupid do you think I am?”

The tone was quick, cold and uncompromising. She was not ready for this.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Why did you want this? Whose idea was it?” His voice was also not what she expected. She was anticipating something deep and rough, like that of a smoker. But this one was clear and firm, almost professorial.

“The interview? Mine of course,” she lied. She swallowed.

No response. Sandra wondered where he was calling from. She strained to catch any background noises.

He let out a short, gasping sort of laugh.

“I didn’t expect this,” he said. “You don’t get it, do you? This is not a game.”

Her right hand, still on the keyboard, started to shake. “What the hell are you talking about,” she responded angrily, trying to compose herself as much as to retake ground. “You’re the one playing games.”

The voice took another deep breath. “This is going to cost you. One more person is going to die, and it’s on you – you and your detective friend who’s listening in on this call in the impotent hope that this will help track me down.”

“He’s not . . .” Sandra started to say, but then caught herself.

“You failed,” he said. “You failed a lot of people.”

The phone went dead.

That cold and clammy feeling quickly enveloped Sandra as she set down the phone. She felt herself sinking again, down to an all-encompassing fear. And this time there would be no easy way out.

Next Time (June 4): “Death Watch,” by Guest Writer John Hendrickson. The killer slips away. Brown fears he’ll seek revenge.

Paul Gullixson is the editorial director at The Press Democrat. Read his columns here.





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