**WARNING: Deals with adult subject matter, language and themes**
“I know what happened to Chester-” the woman said, then paused.Sheriff Chen, still on the porch, just stared. Then took an instinctive step forward. “What do you know?”
She shook her head. Closed her eyes. “That’s not- see, I heard what happened to Chester. Well, that he’s dead. My neighbor, Morgan,” She pointed across the cul-de-sac, “He told me what he thought.”Sheriff Chen scribbled on his pad. “Can I get your name?”
“Clarabel Enriquez. Everybody calls me Claire.”“Okay, Claire-”
“Would you mind coming inside?” She tugged at her sweater. “It’s freezing out and my heater just kicked on.”Sheriff Chen nodded. “Wouldn’t mind at all. Thank you.”
He walked inside the cozy house and took his hat off. The first thing he noticed was a large framed portrait hanging in the living room behind the couch: a large mother grizzly bear with two cubs clinging to her back.Claire closed the door and led the Sheriff towards the adjacent dining room. The sudden heat felt stifling. Chen unzipped his thick jacket and looked around. The layout of this place was the same as the victims. “What did Morgan say was going on?”
Claire blinked a long moment. “Um, he said there was a Coroner’s van parked there and he couldn’t get Chester on the phone.”Chen nodded. That aligned with his Morgans witness statement. “Do you live here alone?”
“I have two kids. They’re napping downstairs.”Chen swallowed hard. The path. It niggled at him because there was no fence between the backyards. Just local flora, ferns, and briars scattered between tree trunks.
“This isn’t a single story?”“It is. Or, it was. The lady that sold me the house renovated the basement. She added a rumpus room, a huge laundry area; that’s what made me want it, the formal laundry room.” She gave a hollow chuckle. “Then a mother-in-law quarters.”
Chen squinted in a way that made Claire want to explain. “It’s a separate apartment with its’ own entrance, kitchen, and master bedroom. We all sleep down there because it’s mainly subterranean.”“Sounds nice. Where is the separate entrance?”
Claire gestured at the large dining room window in the back wall. “If you look down, you can see the other patio. That door is right below us.”Chen unlocked the window and slid it open. There was no screen so he stuck his head outside. She was right. The cement patio of a second entry was directly below. From this vantage, the house looked like a two-story. But the other end, the side near the victim’s property, was the same level as the front. He couldn’t see the secret path to the neighboring yard from here, but he’d find it.
Chen closed the window and locked it. Smoothing his thin hair, he asked, “Ms. Enriquez, were you at home last Saturday afternoon?”“Claire, please. And yes, we were home.”
“Was anyone here with you?”“Just my boys.”
“How old are they?”“Four and six.”
Chen’s stomach caught fire. “What are their names?”“The oldest is Edward. The other is Jacob.”
Chen repeated the names. “Jacob and Edward, like Twilight.”Claire shrugged, “We almost moved to Forks.” The smile that followed was a little too wide.
Chen nodded. That housing market blew up when the movies came out. He almost commented on it, but he was there to do a job. “How well did you know Mr. Lester?”“I didn’t know him. Guy gave me the creeps.”
“You didn’t like him.”Claire thought, Only change the details that matter. “In all honesty, I couldn’t stand him.” Then, followed with a question, “Can I get you something to drink? Hot coffee?”
Sheriff Chen couldn’t get a read on her. Claire was almost stand-offish, yet very polite. Maybe this was a bad time for her. “Don’t go to any trouble.”She headed for the open kitchen that was less than ten feet away and pulled a glass mug from a cabinet. “It’s no trouble. I’m having a cup.”
“In that case …” Chen acquiesced.Claire didn’t grab a second glass mug, she pulled out a tall paper cup, the kind they give in the drive-thru. Chen knew what that meant.
She filled both cups. “How do you take it?”“Black.”
“Me, too.” She set both cups on the dining table and sat down. “Aren’t you boiling in that jacket?”Chen was sweating. He removed the thick coat and placed it on the back of his own chair. “So you didn’t like Chester-“
“Not at all.”“Why?”
Claire sighed. To Chen, it seemed that her demeanor charged. Hardened. “You’re going to hear it from other people if you haven’t already, so … I didn’t like the way he acted with my kids.”“How was that?”
“Sneaky.”“Can you explain that?” He sipped his coffee (shit, it was hot) and watched Claire explain, taking in everything, then writing it down.
Claire took a careful sip of her coffee, wondering how best to frame a response. “The very first day I let my kids play outside, Chester invited my boys into his house. Without saying anything to me. I’d never met him, didn’t know he existed. I was freaking out because I couldn’t find them. They’re not the type of kids to wander off. I took my eyes off them for five minutes-” She was too worked up and took a deep breath. Such a bastard.Chen scribbled his notes while Claire kept breathing and let it out slowly.
“How long were they missing? How did you find out they were with him?”“I don’t know how long I looked. But I asked one of the neighbors. Mrs. Dally, I think? She said they were inside Chester’s house.”
“And what did you do?”“I got my cubs back.”
Chen lowered his pad and leaned over his coffee. “How did that go?”“With immense speed. I was righteously pissed. What kind of grown man invites little children into his house?”
“In my experience, not the good kind.”“Exactly!” She heard herself then, hear the enthusiasm. Mama Bear, reign it in.
“Take me through the confrontation. What did you do?”Claire paused. “Confrontation? There was no confrontation. I marched to his house, got my cubs, and made sure he knew how I felt about his actions. That it was wrong. He was wrong.”
“Did Mr. Lester give a reason for his actions?”Claire shook her head. “I don’t remember. But that’s how I learned that this little cul-de-sac loves drama. The interaction took, like, two seconds. Yet every single person saw it happen.”
“But only Mrs. Dally saw Mr. Lester with your children?”Claire huffed. “How does a person see that, and just let it happen?”
Chen shook his head. “People rarely see each other clearly. In my job, I come across the worst kinds of darkness. Works of monsters. But I also meet very good people. Usually on the worst day of their lives. I think, most people are good, but we project our own reason and needs onto others. That makes it harder to spot the bad ones.”A small voice interrupted, “Mama Bear, who is that?”
Sheriff Chen turned to find Claire’s children, ages four and six. They were standing near the top of a flight of stairs at the mouth of a short hallway.They were adorable in their superhero sweatshirts and matching slippers. The smaller one was stout with short brown hair. The older was thin, but with chubby cheeks and hair that was longer than most boys his age. Both had the same deep brown eyes, widened by curiosity, or fear, as they stared at the Sheriff.
Claire was out of her chair, easing the tension, saying, “Oh, don’t worry my little cubs. That’s just Sheriff Chen. He came by to ask me a few questions. That’s all.”Chen watched her smooth the hair of their heads and kiss their little faces. He watched their eyes follow her every move as she set them on the sofa and offered snacks or water. She was a good mother. A good person. He could see that. But … something bothered him.
That little niggling would not go away. Something about the children … It was the eyes.
Eyes that Chen knew he’d seen before. Not because they were also Claire’s eyes. No, he was sure he’d seen them before today, but in a different place. In a pile of Polaroids.
Sheriff Chen dropped a business card on the table, then slipped his hat onto the dining chair.He grabbed his jacket and the cup of coffee, then motored to the door. “You’ve been very helpful, Claire. I’ll be in touch.”