JULY 22, 1936
Marie Barkley loved her new dress. It was stylish, fashionable, and most important: She looked good in it. She wasn’t being immodest, just realistic. She’d had enough experience to make a fair appraisal of when she looked good and when she didn’t. And right now, walking south down West 73rd in a black-and-white print with brand-new silk stockings, she looked like a million bucks.
Her mother would never approve of this purchase. It wasn’t the cost, though that wasn’t inconsiderable, especially in these times, with her poor father working two jobs to make ends meet. No, her mother would be worried by the same thing that delighted Marie-she looked good in it. Men are wolves, she had told Marie, time and again. Don’t let yourself be fooled. They’re only after one thing. And if they get it, you’ll never see them again.
Marie couldn’t help but wonder how much her mother’s personal history shaped her opinions about men. She would never know. Her mother never talked about her past and she probably never would. Didn’t matter. Marie was smart enough to calculate her own age versus the date on her parents’ marriage license and draw her own conclusions.
Marie’s mother hated her new young man, Barry Trussell. He was much too sharp-looking for her. Pity that a man’s good looks could be held against him. But her mother was afraid she would run off with him and get married, now, when she was only seventeen. Or worse, that she would have to run off and get married to him, now, when she was only seventeen. She might be able to stretch her father’s income to a new dress every now and again, but a Mexican abortion? That was just not going to happen.
Marie had offered on more than one occasion to go to work. Her mother, predictably, was appalled by the idea. But Mother, she insisted, a lot of the girls are working these days. The world has changed. Not enough for her mother, though. Marie saw nothing wrong with working a few hours a week in a shop, but her mother wouldn’t hear of it. You’ll be tarnished for life, she said. Apparently she equated the shop girl with another working girl of a more intimate nature. It was crazy. Like it or not, the world had changed, and you didn’t have to be Susan B. Anthony to realize there were worse things than working in a shop.
It’s not as if she were a suffragette, not by a long shot. She had read about those women over in England, arrested because they had the audacity to seek the vote, force-fed and sometimes killed in the process. They’d done their job-women in England had finally gotten the vote, a year before American women did. So in four years, Marie would be able to vote-but she still couldn’t work in a shop. It was absurd, simply absurd. She was pretty enough to get a job at a time when a lot of able-bodied men were going hungry. What could possibly be wrong with that?
She crossed Denison, then the Baltimore & Ohio railroad track, making her way toward Brooklyn. She couldn’t wait to show the new dress to Millie. It would make her insane, which of course was the whole pleasure of the thing. This dress was the cat’s meow; she looked so good it in you could eat her with a fork. If she did think so herself.
Marie saw some charcoal kindling on the ground and gave it a wide berth. Hobo campfires. She knew a lot of tramps and out-of-work transients camped in this field at night. Maybe she should’ve gone another way, but this was the quickest route to Millie’s place, and she was sure she would be all right as long as the sun was out and she didn’t do anything stupid. Still, it might not hurt to walk a little faster. So she did.
Until something stopped her dead in her tracks.
What on earth was that hideous smell?
The stench was so strong and pervasive she felt herself getting woozy, like she’d inhaled a bad perfume at Woolworth’s, only a thousand times worse.
It was coming from the brush to her right, just off the path.
Skunk? she wondered. Because she certainly didn’t want to get to Millie’s smelling of skunk.
So why did she keep walking closer?
The odor grew more intense with every step. She felt her head spinning and her knees getting a little unsteady. Perhaps she should not have worn heels.
She stepped into the brush and the stink was so strong it slammed against her head like a brick wall. What on earth could it be?
She pushed aside a tall bush and that was when she saw it, so black and gray that at first she did not recognize it for what it was. A human body. Or the remains of one.
She covered her mouth with her hand. Why had it taken her so long to realize this was a corpse?
The answer came quickly: Because in addition to being black and leathery, it was missing one of the most readily identifiable aspects of a human body. The head.
Marie made her way out of the brush just as quickly as her heels would allow her. Maybe she didn’t need to see Millie after all, not right away. Maybe she needed to get out of here, fast, before she ran into whoever-or whatever-had done this. Could it be that monster she had read about in the News? That Torso Killer?
A chill shot down her spine. Her pace quickened. She broke both heels before she made it to police headquarters, but that was the absolute last thing on her mind.