** WARNING: Deals with adult subjects, language and themes**
The case was heating up for local Sheriff Dennis Chen until the prints he’d sent to the crime lab came back. He thought for sure they’d belong to somebody within the victim’s network of low-life companions.
He stared at the page handed to him by Deputy Mary Johnson, who’d just stepped into his office to alert, “There was no match.”
Sheriff Chen shook his head. “We must have taken a hundred prints.”
Chen rubbed the thinning patch of hair on top of his head, then put his hat on. The golden star sat front and center. Standing up was the signal that Deputy Johnson should follow.
“Back to knockin’ on doors.”
They walked together out of the station and hopped in the cruiser out front.
“I don’t like this one. Makes me want to puke when I think about it,” Johnson said as she buckled up.
Chen agreed, “Justice will be served. He was murdered within his home-”
“Where we know he committed multiple felonies against unnamed prepubescent children.”
“He was asking for it, no doubt.” But Chen understood that Justice was a line in the sand. There had to be consequences for crossing. It was a two-edged sword whose blows were delivered in a specific way. Law and Order was the only thing separating man from beast. His victim was an animal, but he’d pursue justice all the same.
The Polaroids uncovered at the crime scene … So many young lives scarred by Mr. Lester. As they searched the victim’s property, they learned all about the kind of man he’d been. All evidence pointed to his being a serial child-molester.
Just thinking about it made Chen want to take a shower. “You can’t mess with somebody’s child and think they won’t react.”
“That’s a long list of people with motives,” Johnson added, which effectively ended the conversation, for the time being.
They needed to think.
Bothell, Washington was a tiny town, that until recently had been relatively quiet. For sociopolitical reasons that Chen and Johnson couldn’t grasp, the local police department had informed the Sheriff’s office that they’d have to handle the Chester M. Lester murder investigation on their own.
The work didn’t bother Chen. He’d done it a hundred times. But it was always alongside, in participation-slash-cooperation with a police detective. This was his first solo investigation within city limits. He had to be methodical. Assume nothing. Take pictures and samples of everything. There was no such thing as too much evidence because you never knew what would turn out to be useful.
The rain was a fine mist sprinkling the cruiser as it turned up a nondescript driveway; a gravelly drive between trees that led up a short hill. At the top, a cul-de-sac with five houses and about a hundred more trees. Some with briars in between. How could a neighbor see anything through all that?
The houses weren’t visible from the main road. Their only hope of a witness was a nosy neighbor or security cameras.
Out in front of the victim’s residence, Sheriff Chen and Deputy Johnson walked a stone path that encircled the residence, searching for signs of forced entry. Again.
Chen noticed an open patch between ferns near the back of the property. He stepped closer, making note of a semi-worn path that led to the neighboring property as Johnson rattled off.
“Nothing was taken, that we can tell. No forced entry. Vic has no defensive wounds or other injuries. One slice to the left jugular.” Johnson loved recounting the facts. “Perp’s probably right-handed. The victim lived alone but was found in this den of iniquity within hours of the attack, according to the Coroner.”
“How?” Chen asked. Not because he didn’t know, but because he was training Johnson to memorize every detail.
“A neighbor returning a garden hose.”
Chen looked over his notes from the past several days. “The neighbor’s name?”
Johnson recalled, “Old lady … on the left side. Patricia Dally. She placed the hose in back, then knocked on the front door.”
“How’d she get inside?”
“When he didn’t answer, she tried the knob. It was unlocked.”
“Ask how, why she thought he was home. Get the little details, write them down this time. I’m heading next door.”
The house had been too quiet. The cubs went down for a nap a half-hour before and Mama Bear, Claire, couldn’t concentrate on anything. She’d shut off the TV, and was just sitting there, staring at nothing.
What if she had taken her ex-husband’s advice and stayed in Portland? What if she’d kept the cubs beside her? Never let them out of her sight for a single second? Would Chester still have gotten to them? Could he have slinked under her defenses and gotten to them another way?
She’d asked herself these and many other questions since that fateful afternoon. It had been just three days but it felt like a lifetime. And, frankly, none of the answers she’d come up with seemed any better than her current predicament. She left Portland for her cubs. She’d chosen Bothell because they loved the trees. The feeling of being in the wild woods, but still nestled in the supposed-safety of a small town. And if she hadn’t taken care of things with Chester, he’d still be there, living his infectious existence. Sucking up the clean air.
The knock made her jump. Claire’s heart was suddenly racing. She’d been waiting for a visit from the police, but she didn’t want to talk to them. Didn’t want to lie. She’d always valued honesty and truth be told, she felt justified in her actions, even though it was breaking the law.
If protecting her children made her a bad person, then so be it.
Claire peeled herself from the sofa and opened the door. The air that rushed in was biting cold. Claire tightened her sweater and stared.
The Sheriff on her porch wasn’t wearing gloves. His fingers and face were red from the exposure. The misty rain made the cold stick to you.
“Good afternoon, Ma’am. I’m Dennis Chen, with the local Sheriff’s office. We’re investigating an incident over at your neighbor’s place-”
“I know,” Claire interrupted. “I know what happened to Chester.”
Sheriff Chen didn’t move, but Clair felt his focus zeroing-in as she realized what she said.