Blood-red letters filled the top of the news page on the monitor screen…
Serial Killer Victim Identified
Each time Sara Mason went online to read and learn about the Sacramento River Delta, the hometown area she never had a chance to know, her homepage featured headlines about the elusive psychopath. She read the Internet posts with concern and remembered the fear caused by the Zodiac Killer of the 1960s and 1970s. Like with the Zodiac, authorities had no direct clues as to who the killer might be.
Reading the updates always set her nerves on edge. Just after moving into her home she thought she had heard someone walking around her property late at night but could never find a trace of anyone being there. Was she imagining things?
The news went on to disclose…
The graves of two unidentified skeletons did not contain an ID or personal belongings, as was the case with previous burial sites found. Cat bones buried in the graves were the tie-in with previous victims, all found with bones of a small animal.
“A cat,” Sara said out loud. Then an intrusive old image came to mind: A pink dress and a small furry bunny.
Cold case detectives identified one of the two sets of remains as that of Paula Rowe, a convenience store night clerk from Sacramento. She had been missing twelve years.
Previous reports indicated the victims were placed in the ground with the belongings they had at the time. The killer dug the graves in remote areas near rivers and streams where the ground was soft and damp, promoting decay.
A police profiler indicated the perpetrator presumably lived within the crescent-shaped area where the graves were placed. Remains were found beyond Interstate 80 to the west, Roseville to the north, and east of Rancho Cordova along the American River. Within the crescent extends the entire Sacramento metropolitan area and suburb towns. Most of the victims had been missing for years, some for decades. Considering the graves discovered in recent times did not contain fresh skeletons, it is assumed the killer either left the area or simply quit killing, which law enforcement believe to be unlikely. Now and then, a new name is added to the growing list of missing people, the killer still unknown.
One last item in the Internet article disclosed…
Since victims are both male and female, and of differing races, it is difficult to determine a possible motive, except that authorities have an elusive madman on their hands.
If she was not careful, Sara's imagination could get out of hand. The break-ins were increasing in the barrio where she lived in Puerto Rico for the last three decades. This left her looking over her shoulder and the need to find a safe place to live life grew heavier. Some communities on the island were simply too dangerous, and her neighborhood had become one of them. She needed a place where she felt secure, but never guessed she would find herself clear across the country.
Once deciding to return to live in her hometown area, her first major decision was to look for a house along the river, but not confined to Rio Vista in Solano County where she attended high school. Many people moved into the Delta and built multimillion-dollar mansions along the river. That was not for her.
She slipped into town before Christmas a few months earlier and bought an older house, a present to herself. Wanting to own a Victorian mansion was a lifelong dream that never faded. She found one such place, and to the astonishment of the real estate broker, immediately signed the sales agreement for the full asking price. Upon approval of her offer, she paid cash by way of a wire transfer.
After signing the documents, she overheard the hotshot Sacramento real estate broker boast to someone in another office, “Some wealthy middle-aged blonde woman—a real looker outa' Puerto Rico—just bought that damnable eyesore down along the river.” Sara wasn't offended and smiled secretly. She knew she held her age well and knew exactly how she would refurbish the old mansion.
Next, Sara contacted her alma mater, Rio Vista High School, about class reunions. Through high school records, she located Daphine Whelan, her best friend back then. If anyone else remembered her, it was probably as a quiet, bashful girl with stringy blond hair.
“You know what they say about that house,” Daphine had warned over the phone.
“The real estate agent filled me in,” Sara said. “I don't believe most of it.”
Daphine's mood was upbeat, knowing her childhood friend was back in town. But her conversations about the house was somber. “Just be careful, okay? That maniac is still on the loose, and the previous owner of your house is still missing.”
Most of the sketchy information about the estate seemed mixed with rumors and gossip. “Daph, the real estate agent filled me in on some of the history of that house. He said that Orson and Esmerelda Talbot were the second owners. They named it Talbot House. The original owners built the house in 1928. Since it was only a copy of an original Victorian home, it was unable to be registered with any historical society. The Talbots wished to leave congested city life in the San Francisco Bay Area. Being that 1928 was the year Orson Talbot was born, they interpreted it as an omen to buy. Soon afterward, Mr. Talbot went missing.”
“Yes, I’ve heard the history of that dilapidated Victorian.”
“Daph,” Sara remembered saying. “Ramshackle or not, I've got my dream house, and nothing will keep me away. Just wait till you see what I do with it.”
Daphine's silence through the phone seemed more like a warning.
Though her hands remained at the keyboard, Sara found herself staring at her little sister's photos hanging on the wall covered with old blue floral wallpaper. Little Starla was long dead, but Sara always found a measure of peace just seeing her sister's face. Many times, Sara had placed photos of her youth next to Starla's pictures. Had they been born closer together in years, they could have passed for twins.
“I miss your laughter,” Sara said to the close-up of Starla's face. Would Starla's sunny blond hair have stayed that way, as hers had? Would Starla have had the same slender figure, been tall, and offered a chance to do some modeling, as she had? Would the sparkle in her large baby blue eyes have remained too? Or would it have diminished once Starla understood about their parents?
Later, after breaking away from the computer and climbing into bed, Sara became consumed with thoughts of remains being found. The need for caution instilled in her in Puerto Rico had yet to wear off and take its place in distant memory. But for the time being, her sense of self-preservation remained on high alert. The roads were greatly improved since she had lived in the area. The entire Sacramento and Delta regions could be covered by auto in little time. If the perpetrator left Sacramento, he could have gone anywhere. She rolled over and tried to clear her mind and visualize the old house remodeled and decorated. The wind gusted, and the back part of the house creaked. It was a sound with which she had become familiar.
She snuggled down and gave thanks for flannel pajamas, something unnecessary in the Caribbean. Just as she drifted off, she was startled by noises outside. Footsteps. She had heard them before. More like boot steps. On the sidewalk on the north side. Passing right outside her bedroom window!
“Dreaming,” she said, half asleep. “Must be dreaming.”
She couldn't just lie there if someone was trying to get in. She had been told that homeless people and vandals, at times, got inside. Whoever was out there needed to know the house was now occupied. She threw back the covers and was about to leave her bedroom when she remembered that all the windows were no longer boarded up. With the old heating system not yet working, little to no condensation accumulated on the windowpanes. Nothing to hide anyone inside. If that was not a homeless person seeking shelter—her mind flashed on the serial killer whose whereabouts were unknown—she wasn't about to throw on the lights and expose herself as a captive fish in a goldfish bowl.
“Should have left the windows boarded,” she said, whispering to herself. Her bedroom and bath were the only rooms where temporary curtains hung. She listened again but heard nothing else. She dropped to the floor and crept toward the sitting room, watching the windows to see if any shadows moved outside. She felt paranoid and wondered if this was what her neighbors endured in Puerto Rico when intruders broke into their homes. Paranoid or not, it was best to be safe. She watched the windows again.
She crept to the dining room doorway, studied the windows, and saw nothing. Passing the fireplace, she made it into the pantry where she waited and listened just off the kitchen.
She heard nothing.
A butcher knife lay in the dish rack where she had left it to dry. She crept low to retrieve it.
More noises… toward the front of the house at the opposite end.
She grabbed the knife, crept back into the pantry, and found a hammer where she had left it when removing old shelving.
If someone were walking around the grounds, she might be able to see them from an upstairs window. She began to climb the dark back staircase between the kitchen and dining room that was once used as the servant's access to the rest of the house. One stair squeaked, and the sound echoed off the walls of the enclosed stairwell.
Sara's heart beat wildly. She held her breath.
Upstairs, she moved quietly from room to room, peeping outside without getting too close to each window. She saw nothing but trees bending against the night sky and heard no sounds other than the wind rushing around the corners and gables of the house.
She felt isolated, sleeping alone in a monstrous four-level, forty-five hundred square foot house, where sounds reverberated off the walls of the empty rooms. Finally, she sat down again on her bed and made sure her cell phone was still on the nightstand. But what good would it do her if she was caught in trouble upstairs and her cell phone was downstairs? She clutched the phone and argued with herself about calling 911. The noises could simply be her imagination. Still, someone needed to know what was happening.
She hesitated, then punched the code, and waited till someone answered. “Buck, it's me, Sara.”
A yawn came through the phone. “It's after midnight, Sara. This old man doesn't stay up working late like you do.”
She had stayed briefly with friends Buck and Linette till escrow closed. She sighed. “Buck, I just read more about that psychopath, and now I can't get to sleep. I thought if you guys were still awake, I'd come over and—”
“Don't you dare go outside in the middle of the night!”
“So, you think that psychopath could be in this area?”
“I just want you to be safe. Learn to stay indoors at night when you're alone.”
“I-I guess I'm over-reacting.”
“You have a weapon?” he asked, through another yawn.
“Yeah,” she said, eyeing the knife and hammer lying beside her on the bed. 'I'll be okay.”
Finally, back in bed, the silence was deafening. How could she even think about letting someone scare her out of her house? To help her relax, as she often did, she thought of innocent little Starla, who loved to sing. Decades earlier, Starla had heard the obscure theme song from the 1960 movie, Circus of Horrors, on the radio and felt rapport because of her name. Sara imagined hearing Starla's sweet voice singing, “…when you feel there is no one to guide you… look for a star.”
Sara shivered, and it wasn't from the old house having no heat. “I hope I can sleep tonight,” she said softly. She sighed and glanced at the knife and hammer lying on the nightstand, strategically placed for a quick grab.