Merylo hated visiting the coroner’s office. Hated it worse than he hated wide ties, Joan Crawford, and that jazzy music. “It Ain’t Necessarily So”-what kind of song was that? Bad grammar excusing bad scansion. But at least he could turn off the radio. Visiting the coroner was part of the job, more and more so with every passing year. When he had started with the force, fifteen years ago, there hadn’t been all that much a coroner could do, other than pronounce a corpse officially dead, fill out the death certificate, and make a semi-educated guess as to the cause of death. Today, modern science had given them the ability to do much more; the coroner had become an integral part of the crime-solving team. So here he was.
But Merylo still didn’t like it.
Fortunately, the new coroner in Cleveland, Arthur J. Pearce, was one of the best in the country. Merylo knew he had written scientific articles for the top forensic journals. Merylo had even read some of them, though he usually got lost in the scientific gibberish. The man had a national reputation. He could be helpful.
Pearce hunched over his examining table, a sharp instrument in one hand and a blunt one in the other, doing something to one of the corpses.
Merylo cleared his throat, but the doctor proceeded with his business as if he hadn’t heard. Maybe he hadn’t-he seemed very focused.
“Got anything new for me?”
“Any tips at all? Cause of death? Time of death? Weapon?”
No reaction. Pearce was scraping at a wound. Extracting something. Merylo didn’t really want to know.
“Have you at least matched up the right head to the right body?”
Pearce stopped. His head tilted to one side. He slowly drew himself erect.
“You had done that before the bodies arrived in my office.” He spoke with a clipped, East Coast accent. Merylo wished he could learn how to talk like that. It made the man sound smart. Or maybe that was because he was smart.
“You never know. I might’ve gotten it wrong. Or you might not have caught up with me yet.”
Pearce arched an eyebrow.
“You’d tell me, wouldn’t you? If I got it wrong?”
“Of that you may be certain.”
Pearce turned as if to resume his work, but Merylo stepped forward. “So what have you learned so far?”
Pearce sighed, then laid down his dissecting instruments. “What would you like to know?”
“Cause of death?”
“As you might suspect. Decapitation. With a sharp instrument. Single blow. The killer severed the head in the midcervical region which concomitantly instigated a fracture of the vertebrae.”
Merylo felt something roiling in his stomach. “I was kinda hoping maybe he killed the guys first.”
Pearce shook his head. “When the decapitation occurred, they were very much alive. Given the rope burns around his wrists and ankles, he was probably physically restrained. Tied up.”
“Must take a lot of strength to hack off a man’s head in one whack.”
“So we’re looking for someone strong. Someone male.”
“You’re assuming too much.” Pearce removed his protective gloves. “In the case of Victim Number Two, the killer took several-how did you say it?-whacks. There are telltale signs.”
“I’m not sure I see any evidence of hesitation. Or regret, or any other human emotion. The skin edges were clear-cut. But he didn’t get the head off in one blow. Neck bones are tough-they’re designed that way. Do you know how many times the executioner had to chop at Mary, Queen of Scots, before he got her head all the way off?”
He did not. Nor did he care to. “What kind of weapon did the killer use?”
“Impossible to say. But there’s no reason to suppose it was anything other than your common axe. Such as you might find in most of the homes in Cleveland. Even a strong knife would do the job, given enough power behind it. Possibly a sword.”
“So he hacked off their heads, then hauled the body parts to Jackass Hill?”
“Not quite so quickly as that summation supposes.” Pearce took a cigarette out of his lab coat pocket and lit it. Smoking, of course, was all the rage-it looked so glamorous when Bette Davis did it. But Merylo hated the smell. Made him cough and sputter. Didn’t Pearce realize his operating room was nauseating enough already? “First he hacked off the heads. Then he drained all the blood out of the bodies.”
Merylo winced. “How do you know?”
“Did you see dried blood where you found the bodies? Or anywhere nearby?”
“No. And we searched the whole Run.”
“And there was almost no blood in either body. Ergo, they had been drained.”
“Why would anyone want to do that?”
Pearce gave him a withering look. “Why would anyone want to hack off a man’s head and then deposit the pieces on Jackass Hill?”
“Good point.” Merylo turned, took a deep breath and tried to clear his head. “Did you do anything with the clothes we found? Or the other stuff?” After the second corpse and body were discovered, the men searching the surrounding area also found several pieces of rope, a blue coat, a white shirt and trousers, a checkered cap, and a tin bucket filled with engine oil laced with blood and black hair.
“The clothes belonged to the second victim. Some of it bears his blood. Presumably he was wearing them when he was decapitated. The killer removed them later.”
“Detective Merylo, would you please stop asking me that?” He blew cigarette smoke into the air. “My job is to provide data. Your job is to provide the why.” He took another drag, then continued. “The rope may have been used to restrain the victims, or to bind their bodies to ease transportation, but I have no means of confirming either theory. And as for the bucket of oil… well, I simply have no idea. Can’t even… imagine.” He looked away. “Don’t particularly want to.”
“Could he be… making something? What do you get when you mix engine oil and blood?”
“A huge reeking mess.”
How scientific. “What about their skin? I’ve seen corpses before, Doc. Even some long-dead ones. But I’ve never seen anything like that before. There’s something wrong with the color. The texture of the skin.”
Pearce nodded. “I agree. I can’t prove this, but I believe some kind of chemical was used. Perhaps a preservative.”
“Like-like he wanted to keep the bodies from decaying? So he could keep them around and admire them?”
“You’re asking me ‘Why?’ again, Detective.” He ground out his cigarette in a nearby ashtray. “I can’t be certain it was a preservative. It wasn’t formaldehyde-I’m certain of that. But whatever it was-it does seem to have had some sort of sustaining effect.”
Merylo’s head reeled. What was the killer up to? Was this a mob hit? Were they preserving the corpses so they could be put out on display? As a scare tactic? To discourage others from defying them?
He decided to give his stomach a break and change the subject. “What about the time of death?”
“Given that a preservative may have been used, that becomes extremely difficult to determine. All I can say with certainty is-it wasn’t anytime recent. The killer must’ve kept them in a safe place for a good long time-perhaps weeks-before finally disposing of them.”
And why dispose of them at all? Anyone this cruel must’ve been able to make a body disappear. Why dispose of them on Jackass Hill, a place where they were almost certain to be found?
“Did Joe come by? I asked him to.”
Pearce nodded. “Your friend from Bertillon was here. He took many pictures. And prints.”
“Did he see anything of interest?”
“I wouldn’t know. He didn’t speak. Most unfriendly.” Pearce picked up a scalpel, still red at the tip, and held it up to the light. “He seems uncomfortable around me. I don’t know why that would be.”
Can’t imagine. “Thanks for your help, Doc.” Not that any of it was actually helpful. “If you reach any conclusions, be sure to let me know.”
“As it happens, I’m about to reach a conclusion right now. Would you like to stay and witness it?”
“Of course I would. What’ve you got?”
Pearce picked up a green rectangular sheet of paper-a death certificate. He scribbled his name across the bottom of it. “I hereby declare these two unknown persons as being officially-dead. Would you like a copy?”
Merylo smashed his hat back on his head. “That’s all right, Doc. Thanks for the insight.”