Using a pencil to avoid leaving fingerprints or other trace evidence, Merylo carefully unwrapped the last of the newspaper-wrapped bundles they had found in the two half-bushel baskets behind the White Front Meat Market at 2002 Central. They had expected to find meat in them. They had been right.
And terribly terribly wrong.
“You ever seen anything like this before?” Lieutenant Zalewski said in a hushed voice. His face was an ashen white.
“No,” Merylo had to admit, “I have not. Not in fifteen years. This is… bizarre.”
“You ever hear of the mob doing anything like this?”
“No.” Merylo bristled slightly. “But that doesn’t mean they didn’t. Those boys can be downright inventive sometimes.”
Zalewski stretched, glad to pull away from those revolting baskets. “Uniforms find the rest yet?”
“No. Nothing. Not even-”
Merylo didn’t want to finish, and he didn’t need to finish. They both knew what they were thinking.
No one had found the head.
Once the papers were unwrapped, it became all too clear that they contained the severed pieces of a human body. Tidily wrapped and stored in those two baskets, they found the lower half of a female torso, both thighs, and a right arm.
“Have them fan out,” Merylo said. “Widen the search. Get as many men on it as possible.”
Zalewski dutifully passed along the commands while Merylo tried to make some sense out of what they had discovered.
Was it the same killer? He wasn’t sure what was worse-to imagine that the previous killer had descended to this level, or to imagine that there might be more than one hood capable of doing something like this.
He wondered what this would do to the Cleveland News theory that the first two victims had been the product of a sordid love triangle. They had no evidence in support but lots of glamour, and thus it captured the largest share of the public’s imagination. He didn’t see how this third victim, a female, fit in. If she was the third side of the triangle, who was doing the killing? A third lover? A morally indignant neighbor? It just didn’t make any sense.
Zalewski returned to his side. “I got them on it, sir. There are actually some men volunteering to help. Even as disturbing as it is.”
“They’re scared,” Merylo said quietly. “They want this killer caught. Before he gets to their neighborhood. Their families.”
“Anything else I can do?”
“Call Pearce and get him down here as soon as possible. Wrap up that arm and get it to the Bertillon boys.”
“But Pearce can be awfully-”
“Zalewski, do you have any idea how important the first forty-eight hours can be? That’s when most crimes are solved-if they are solved. After that the trail goes cold. Right now we’ve got a lot of men-volunteers even-scouring this area. The more information they have, the better. So if Bertillon can identify this corpse, we’re going to let them.”
“Yes, sir. Of course, sir.”
“If you learn anything from working with me, son-and I hope you do-you should learn this. A cop has to keep his nose clean. Stay off the take. Follow the rules.” He paused. “Except those rules that sometimes have to be broken to keep some butcher like this one from hacking another innocent person to bits. Do you understand me?”
Zalewski swallowed. “Yes, sir. Perfectly.”
“Good. Now where is this woman who found the baskets? Angela Felice.”
“They took her to the hospital, sir. She went into shock. Might even have some frostbite. After she found the baskets, she passed out. Collapsed in the snow, and she wasn’t wearing much. She was discovered some time later by a drunk looking for shelter.”
“Did he revive her?”
“No. He shook her, but it didn’t work. He was pretty impaired.”
“He ran into the Meat Market and got help. He was slurring badly so it took them awhile to figure out what he was saying. Finally the owner, Charles Page, came out and found the body parts. He called the police.”
“Good thing someone got involved who had the wherewithal to get the word to us. Might’ve been spring thaw before we were on the scene.” He frowned. “You think there’s any chance at all this woman-”
“I don’t think so, sir. Mrs. Felice was really shaken up. If she was behind the killing, they oughta give her an Academy Award, ’cause she would be the best darn actress in the world.”
Of course that was right. Didn’t make any sense that she would be involved. Merylo was embarrassed at himself for asking. Showed just how desperate he was for a clue, for any workable theory.
“Look, Zalewski, you go check on her at the hospital, then let’s meet back at the office at five and see if any reports have come in from the men working the streets. If we-”
“ ’Scuse me. You in charge?”
Merylo looked down at the scrawny man with the camera that was wider then he was. Didn’t recognize him, but the brownie said it all. Press.
“I guess I’m in charge, but I don’t have anything-”
“My name’s O’Rourke. I’m with the Cleveland News. Can you confirm that this is the work of the same killer who left the corpses on Kingsbury Run?”
“I’m not prepared to give interviews at this time.”
“Does that mean you affirm or deny?”
“Is there a police cover-up? Are you hiding something?”
“Don’t be absurd. It’s just-”
“So this is the work of the same killer?”
Merylo cleared his throat. “It’s too early to draw any conclusions. In time-”
“Do you think there’s one killer, or a gang of them?”
“A gang? Look, this kind of yellow journalism isn’t going to help anyone. Let us do our job and if we learn anything-”
“I think you do know something. You’re just not telling.”
“Listen here, O’Rourke.” Merylo could feel his temperature rising. He quickly checked it. Chief Matowitz would not be pleased if he told this man what he thought of him. Of his whole profession. How did Eliot Ness do it? How did he come off so calm, so charming in all those press conferences? He made it look easy and he came off a hero. Merylo always came out looking like a grunting pig. “If we have anything we’ll notify the press. We may need your help disseminating pictures or descriptions. Like we did with Andrassy.”
“What effect do you think this will have on tourism?”
“None, I hope.”
“We’ve got the Expo coming up. The American Legion convention. Is anyone going to want to come to Cleveland after this gets out?”
Merylo wiped his brow. “Honestly, man, have some sense. More people died last week in traffic accidents than this killer has taken.”
“Then you do think this is the work of the same killer?”
Merylo’s eyes darkened. “This conversation is over. I’m leaving. If you have any further questions-”
“Do you think these murders are connected to the Lady in the Lake?”
Merylo stopped in his tracks. “What are you talking about?”
“You remember that one, don’t you? The Lady in the Lake?”
“You’re not talking about King Arthur…”
“I’m talking about September of ’35. Guy named LaGassie was walking along the shore of Lake Erie, just east of Bratenahl near Euclid Beach Park. Sees something in the water. Turns out to be the lower half of a woman’s torso, legs cut off at the knees. A couple weeks earlier and about thirty miles east, a handyman found vertebrae and ribs with some rotting flesh attached. People assumed they went together, but I don’t think anyone was ever really sure.”
“When was this?”
O’Rourke checked his notepad. “September 5. Last year.” He beamed. “My paper came up with the name, Lady of the Lake. At the time, people were saying the frail musta gotten caught in a boat propeller, some kinda weird accident. But now…”
Merylo looked at him sternly. “Are you sure about this?”
“Course I’m sure. You don’t believe me, ask your coroner. Pearce was on duty. He must know all about it.”
Merylo felt his chest heaving. That insufferable, uncooperative son-of-
“So what do you think? Did the killer start all this more than a year ago?”
Merylo wrapped his coat tightly around himself. “Of course not. That’s absurd. It’s just a twisted coincidence.”
“Can I quote you on that?”
“Absolutely. The first victims were the ones we found on Kings-bury Run. Now if you’ll excuse me, man, I’ve got some work to do.”
Merylo strode away before O’Rourke could protest. He didn’t have time to go on jabbering with this flunky. He had too many places to go, people to interview.
Starting with Dr. Arthur Pearce, county coroner.