Clyde Brown was getting on in age. He had only just turned thirty, but by Buckner, Illinois standards in 1946 he was about as fresh as a tired old workhorse on his way out to pasture.
“Clyde Moses Brown, when in Sam Hill are you going to get yourself a wife?” his mother called out to him that chilly spring morning from the rocking chair in the parlor.
“Momma, I’m a police chief, I ain’t got no time for no wife!” he responded, before delivering a swift kick to the screen door that stood between him and the solitary freedom of his black-and-white cruiser.
“That’s a load of flap-doodle hooey, and you know it!” Despite his mother’s cantankerous ways, she did have a point. Buckner was not a bustling town, nor was it unduly perilous. Folks had been up and leaving for decades, the pace quickening ever since Old Ben Coal Mine No. 14 went idle in ‘33.
Like any good police chief, he knew the numbers by heart; 1,827 people in 1920 was down to 927 in 1940. His jurisdiction was dwindling, and so were his opportunities at amorous companionship.
But Buckner still had its night clubs. Folks came over from Christopher and North City to get cork high and bottle deep at the Buckner bars. And so, he had plenty of reason the Thursday night prior to drive across town and scope the scenes; not just for the usual agitators but also for a single gal. “And what’s your name, little lady?” he had asked, sidling up to a group of three that must have been in their early twenties; no men around.
“Mary,” she said, giggling and dipping her chin before taking a sip from the straw in her glass. A Shirley Temple, he guessed.
“Quite contra-ry,” he intoned, also dipping his chin and adding a flirtatious smile.
The sound of her giggle accompanied him as he drove along the dirt roads to the station downtown that Sunday morning. All the boys had been on call since Friday morning, looking for Mary. She had gone missing, right after their rendezvous on Thursday night.
“Hey, ah, chief?” a nervous, youthful voice scratched through the radio.
“Yeah, Buddy, whatcha need?” he said, dropping into his work voice, an octave lower than at home.
“Ah – guy just came in, says he seen something,” said the voice.
“What kinda somethin’?”
“Somethin’ bad…somethin bad out near Satch Road.”
His stomach dropped. “I’ll be right there, you just hold on Buddy,” he said.
“He says State Police is already out there, says they’re waitin’ for ya…”
He felt a lump in his throat. “Agh, agh, yeah – ok, no problem, Buddy, tell ‘em I’ll be right there – if they call, I mean.”
He yanked the wheel to the left and swung the cruiser around to face East, back from whence he came. Satch was a half-mile past his mother’s house, a remote backwoods track that never augured anything other than bad news and grief.
He leaned his black boot against the gas pedal and clutched the steering wheel until his knuckles went white. The tips of his ears turned red with the rush of anxious blood, and his heartbeat drowned out the sound of tires crushing pebbles underneath the squad car.
Above the din of his rushing adrenaline, he heard only the sound of Mary’s giggle. “Why couldn’t you just—!” he blurted out, to no one in particular, cracking the steering wheel three times with the palm of his hand. He caught himself and let out several deep breaths, dropping his foot off the gas as he rounded the bend onto Satch. His arms fell to the bottom of the steering wheel, and he let his head drop back against the headrest. The cruiser rolled slowly to a stop. He closed his eyes.
Rap, rap, rap. The sound of knuckles tapping the glass window next to his head jostled him awake. A man in a brown state police uniform stood outside, smiling. He rolled down the window.
“Hey ah, you Chief Brown?”
“Yeah–yes Sir, yes I am.”
“Ah, good – hey guys, there he is! It’s him! Ah good, we thought you’d never show!”
Clyde laughed, embarrassed.
“Why don’t you hop outta that cruiser and we’ll show you what we found – time’s a wastin, eh?” said the trooper.
“Sure.” He pulled the keys out of the ignition and donned his hat. As he did, he felt a faint sense of shadows surrounding him. They whispered softly in his ear until he blew them away with a deep exhale. He reached for the door handle, but the State Trooper had beaten him to it.
He looked up to meet the Trooper’s eyes but was blinded by the late-morning sun peering under the car’s roofline. He raised his right arm to shade his eyes and stepped his left boot onto the sandy-dirt road, feeling his foot sink slightly into the soft earth. For a moment, he thought he might fall right on in.
He did not feel thirty anymore. Gravity, like a jealous lover, wanted revenge. He braced his left arm against the doorframe as a lever for his now-heavy body and grunted softly as he lifted himself out of the cruiser’s bucket seat.
Again, the shadows seemed to surround him, and a shiver ran up his spine as the warmth of the sun disappeared for a moment. He shook them off again and ran his fingers along the brim of his hat, before looking up to find himself indeed surrounded — by four men in brown shirts, black ties and brown Stratton campaign hats.
“You’re under arrest,” said the one, “For the murder of Mary Pasternock, on the evening of Thursday March 14, 1946, in the town of Buckner, Illinois. Didn’t think we’d getcha, did ya?”
Off in the distance, he swore he heard Mary’s giggle echo through the trees.
Mike Kentz is a former financial journalist and current High School English Teacher in Savannah, Georgia. He is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing from the Maslow Family Graduate Program at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, PA. He coaches basketball and lacrosse and acts in student films on the side.