In 1970 Margaret Breen used to invite neighborhood kids into her living room after school. She’d lead them through a scripture lesson and a hymn or two, then serve ice-cold lemonade and oatmeal cookies hot from the oven.
I’d been one of those kids. I thought about Mrs. Breen and those long-ago days as I studied the groceries scattered on the kitchen floor and waited for the ambulance to take her body away.
They wouldn’t let her do that now. It’s a different era. But those were less suspicious times—you knew your neighbors, you trusted them, they trusted you, and there was nothing wrong with a little after-school Bible study. In those days we’d all believed in God.
Manderton, Minnesota was a good place to live back then. Some of us still like it here; some of us never left. I’d gone to Police Academy in Minneapolis, and at first I thought I’d stay in the city. But in the end I came home. The town had been good to me, and I wanted to give something back. I wanted to help keep it safe for families like the Breens.
The Breens had the house two doors down from us. Slim ran the town’s grocery store. Mrs. Breen was what they used to call a homemaker. Their son Brent was my age. We’d been good friends for a couple of years and spent a lot of time in the Breen rumpus room, reading Mad and Famous Monsters of Filmland and playing Pong and watching television. We were crazy about the Ed Sullivan Show and Dean Martin’s All-Star Comedy Roasts. We loved the Roasts most of all, with George Burns and Rich Little and Milton Berle and Dom DeLuise and Arte Johnson—all those guys. They still make me laugh.
Which is more than I could say about the situation at the Breens’.
Up till then you might say my job was on the quiet side. I spent my time dealing with speeding drivers, beer-inspired brawlers, penny-ante shoplifters; hair-raising, sometimes, but nothing too horrible or consequential. But a murder was something else—especially when the victim was someone I’d known since I was a boy. Margaret Breen had been very kind to me over the years, almost a second mother for a time, after the death of my own and before my father remarried, and her murder hit me hard. It seemed that some of the city’s darkness had seeped into Manderton.
Big-time cops would have called it just another small town death.
To me it was more like a death in the family.
The way I figured it, Margaret had returned from a quick evening trip to the grocery store and interrupted a B & E. She’d called Brent, who was at the Road Runner Lounge downtown. He rushed home to find his mother lying dead on the kitchen floor with her skull bashed in.
Officer Swenson came in, stepping carefully around the canned peaches and sardine tins and the grey cardboard container of eggs leaking yolk onto the linoleum.
Mickey Swenson’s a Swede with blond hair and blue eyes who’s roughly the size of a rich man’s refrigerator. To look at him you’d think he was about as sharp as a box of bowling balls. You’d be wrong.
“How’s Brent doing?”
“Hangin’ in there,’ Mickey said.
“Got his statement?”
He held up a steno pad. “Right here.”
I read through Brent’s statement, then handed the pad back to Mickey. “What do you think?”
“Seems to check out.” He thought for a moment. “Mostly.”
“Don’t know. Maybe.”
“Guess I should talk to him.”
Mickey nodded. “Good idea.”
I went into the living room. Nothing had changed since we’d sung “I Know That My Redeemer Lives” in this room back when Nixon was president.
Brent was scrunched up on the couch. Judging by the liquor fumes coming off him, he’d been hitting it hard at the Road Runner. He looked miserable, but then Brent had always looked miserable. It’d been a long time since we’d watched dancing bears and impressionists and plate-spinners on Ed Sullivan, and life hadn’t been easy for him. He’d taken over the grocery store after his father died and run it into the ground. He’d opened a used car lot that had closed in record time. Now he was assistant manager of the town’s hardware store. Six months before his mother’s death he’d given up his apartment near the lake and moved back home to save money.