Chamberlin ran into Ness ’s office.
“Here are the papers, sir. All the major dailies.” Ness glanced up from his report. “And?” Chamberlin sighed. “You’re going to be disappointed.” “What?” Ness snatched the top paper from the stack. It was The Courier. Above the fold, where he had expected to see one of the many photographs taken by reporters at The Harvard Club raid, there was instead a line drawing of a hideous ghoulish creature, a slavering bald-headed monster with clawlike fingernails and a leering expression. The headline read: TORSO KILLER STRIKES AGAIN. The smaller subheadline read: WHO WILL BE THE NEXT VICTIM? “Blast!” Ness said, throwing the paper down. “Of all the luck.” “It gets worse, sir.” He opened the paper to the op-ed page, then pointed to the top letter to the editor. “It’s from Congressman Sweeney, the man who questioned you at the Cleveland Advertising Club meeting. Basically, he’s demanding that you stop all other-he calls them, ‘less important activities’-and start working the torso case.”
“What does he expect me to do?”
“Apparently he expects you to catch the killer. He’s pretty hot about it.”
“It’s absurd. I’m not a homicide detective.”
“He says, ‘Surely the man who caught Capone will have no trouble catching one sadistic killer.’ ”
“But-that’s not my job. It’s not what I was hired to do.”
“I don’t think he cares, sir. And if I may say so-I don’t think anyone else does, either. The whole town’s in a panic. Scared to death. They won’t feel safe until this man is caught.”
“Swell.” Ness wadded up the paper and threw it into the trash. “Are the reporters here yet?”
“Sir…” Ness could tell Chamberlin didn’t want to say whatever was coming next. “Do you really think that’s wise? Given what’s in the paper?”
“I’ve got no choice. I can’t start my Boys Clubs without funding from the city council. And I won’t get that without public support.”
“I’m just thinking maybe the time isn’t right…”
“You must be kidding. Juvenile crime is out of control in this town.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“These reporters aren’t idiots. At least not all of them. They’ll come around. Once I explain how important this is. And they’ll take the message to the people.”
“I don’t know…”
“I have a good track record, don’t I?”
“Of course you do. But this-this is something totally different. You’ve never been up against anything like this before.”
Ness rose from his desk and grabbed his suit jacket. “Surely I’ve earned a vote of confidence on my plan to combat juvenile crime.”
“I’m just concerned that-”
“They’ll come around, Bob. You’ll see. I’ve handled the press before and I’ll handle them again.” He grabbed his hat and headed out the door. “I know people are upset about the murders. But that doesn’t mean they can’t see sense.”
Ness hated flashbulbs. Those reporters didn’t mind getting right up in your face with them. They flashed at the least opportune, least flattering moments, and left him literally blinded for a good ten or fifteen seconds. He understood they were just doing their job, and he sometimes liked the result. A flattering photo on the front page of tomorrow’s papers might guarantee the funding he needed. But it was still annoying. Broke his concentration. Made him squint. His eyes were already a little smaller than he might like, a little too beady. He didn’t want to look untrustworthy.
“Thank you for coming out today,” Ness said to the throng of reporters and photographers gathered on the steps of Cleveland City Hall. He tried to amplify his usual soft voice; he needed to sound firm and confident. In control. Funny how he always felt insecure when he gave a speech, but felt entirely comfortable giving a press conference. “I’m here to formally present my plan to deal with the juvenile crime problem that has plagued this city for many years. My problem has been that I couldn’t figure out why Cleveland should have so much more juvenile crime than other cities of similar size. So I did what I always do when I’m trying to tackle a big problem. I investigated.”
Ness saw a hand shoot up from one of the reporters in the rear, but he ignored it and proceeded with his prepared remarks. “I walked the streets at night and talked to many of the young men who have formed gangs, who are committing the petty and increasingly serious crimes that put a dent in this city’s economy. And having talked to them, all I can say is-I’m surprised it isn’t worse. You would be astonished to learn how many young men are out there with no place to live, no regular source of support, poor, poorly educated, one parent or no parent or no employed parent, ravaged by this Depression, no healthy environment. No role model. It’s truly shocking. Many are living in cardboard boxes, under bridges, in Shantytown, where they’re exposed to the worst possible element. The fact is, my friends, we have a juvenile crime problem because we have not been taking care of our children. We have not protected and nourished the next generation.”
Two more hands shot up. For the most part, however, the assembled reporters remained stoic. Their pencils were moving, but he sensed it was more a matter of politeness and patience than any genuine interest. Was he losing his knack for this sort of thing? He was tempted to take a question, but his better judgment told him to go on saying what he had to say.
“To that end, ladies and gentlemen, I am presenting to the city council this day a plan to institute a series of Boys Clubs throughout the city. To reduce costs, I have scouted out buildings still in good condition but abandoned due to our current economic crisis. The city can acquire them at a reasonable price and adapt them to our needs. The youth of this city will have a safe, wholesome place to play and to learn. These Boys Clubs will keep them off the streets, teach them useful skills, and instill values that in some cases are sadly lacking.”
This was not like the other press conferences Ness had conducted. He was giving them good ideas-grand ideas. And for the most part they were sitting like statues, phlegmatic, increasingly impatient. Chamberlin had warned him that this might not be the best time for the conference. But surely, when they heard about everything he had been doing, working days and nights for weeks on end…
“In addition, I have been in contact with the leaders of the Cleveland chapter of the Boy Scouts of America. They too are concerned about the rise in juvenile crime, but have been hampered by a lack of volunteers. They’d like to start many more scout troops but can’t find men to act as troop leaders.” Ness paused dramatically. “Well, in that respect, I can help.” He reached into his pocket. “I have here a list of fifty police officers who have volunteered to give up ten hours a week to help set our youth on the right path.” His eyes twinkled. “I’m going to lead one of the scout troops myself.”
He paused, and it seemed as if a thousand hands shot into the air. The short hairs on the back of Ness ’s neck bristled. He had the distinct impression that none of these questions were going to be about Boys Clubs or Boy Scouts.
“One more thing I’d like to add,” Ness said. His voice squeaked; the pitch rose ever so slightly. “And, uh, I-then-I can entertain questions. I have just received word of an amazing event that should make all the citizens of this city proud. You may recall that before I got here, a national survey determined that Cleveland was the most dangerous city in America. I have just received word from the National Safety Council that Cleveland will soon receive a safety award. Due to the dramatic decrease in organized crime and traffic fatalities, our mayor will soon travel to Washington to receive a national commendation honoring Cleveland for its dramatic transformation from one of America ’s most dangerous cities to one of the safest-”
“For God’s sake,” one of the reporters in the back said, throwing down his hat. “When are you going to talk about the Torso Killer?”
Ness took a deep breath. “I know many people in this city are concerned about these murders. Understandably so. The loss of life is always deplorable. But these other gains-”
“What have you got to say about this latest murder? The body that poor girl found? On the west side.”
“The west side?”
“Right. Where respectable people live, not just bums. That makes five-possibly six-victims,” said a female reporter with bobbed black hair, the one the mayor always called His Girl Friday. Ness couldn’t even remember her real name. “Only two of them have even been identified.”
“Yes, but we’ve decreased traffic fatalities from over four hundred to less than forty so far this year. That’s more than three hundred lives saved and-”
“By all that’s holy, man, will you stop?”
The portly man in the three-piece suit was unmistakable. Congressman Sweeney.
“I’m-sorry, I don’t quite follow-”
“Do you not understand? We have a butcher loose in this city. A cold-blooded killer. Hacking up people like so much meat. And you stand there babbling about traffic lights and… Boy Scouts!”
“Sir, the traffic problem and the rise in juvenile crime are two of the matters I was specifically told to address when I was appointed Safety Director.”
“Times have changed, Ness.” Sweeney was grandstanding, and Ness couldn’t help but notice how fast the reporters’ pencils were moving now that they sniffed a little conflict in the air. “You have a new assignment.”
“Only the mayor’s office can-”
“Are you saying you refuse to get involved? Our vaunted safety director has no interest in the safety of our citizens?”
“Of course not.” Ness felt as if he were treading invisible water. “If we could all just… remain calm. Working the public into a frenzy accomplishes nothing.”
“I demand action!” Sweeney bellowed, and he was met with an audible chorus of assents. “This should be our Golden Age. We’re hosting the Republican National Convention. We’re hosting the Great Lakes Exposition to celebrate the centennial of this fine city. The American Legion is having their national convention here in September. So is The Townsend Club. This could create the economic ripple we need to get back on our feet. But not if nobody comes! And who would be foolish enough to come here when we have a crazed killer chopping people into bits!”
Ness held up his hands, trying to hold him at bay. “I assure you, the Cleveland homicide department-the people who have the job of trying to catch this killer-are on the case. I personally met with Chief of Police Matowitz recently and he told me he has assigned his top men to it. They’re doing everything they know-”
“Apparently it isn’t enough,” remarked the reporter in the rear.
“Maybe they don’t have enough manpower,” His Girl Friday remarked, her voice dripping. “Since you fired half the police officers.”
Ness pursed his lips. “I most certainly did not fire half the police officers.”
“How many replacements have been hired for the men you let go?”
“We’re trying to be careful,” Ness explained. “To screen more carefully and to require more rigorous training. I have a plan to develop a formal police academy.”
“How does that help us now?”
“It would be pointless to release men who are corrupt or useless and then replace them with others just like them.”
“But who’s going to catch this killer?”
“You’re so concerned about the youth of this city.” This came from another woman, a blonde. Ness didn’t think she was a reporter. She didn’t have a notepad. He was almost certain he’d seen her enter with Congressman Sweeney. “I have an eleven-year-old girl and I can’t even get her to go play outside because she’s afraid to leave the house. She’s not sure she’s safe in the house. She’s afraid that monster will get her.”
“Surely you can explain that there is no monster, only one ruthless lawbreaker who is being aggressively hunted by skilled and capable detectives with-”
“Do you have any children?” the woman shot back.
Ness’s neck stiffened. “Well-no.”
“I didn’t think so. If you did, you wouldn’t be worrying about booze and blackjack players. You’d be hunting this madman!”
A rousing cry followed, and after that there were so many people talking at once Ness couldn’t even make out what they were saying. The press conference had descended into chaos. He wanted to blame the reporters; they were being blatantly unfair. But when he looked into their eyes, he didn’t see spite or anger. He saw fear. And Congressman Sweeney was effectively exploiting that fear.
Ness might never come near the Torso Killer, but at this rate, there was a good chance he could become the killer’s next victim.
“Please,” Ness said, trying to quell the outrage. Out the corner of his eye, he saw Chamberlin hovering at the fringe, wondering if he should intervene and make some excuse to get Ness out of this mess. The press would see through that, though. They would perceive it as cowardice. And they would be right. He had to do something to turn the tide.
“Please. If I could just say a few words.” In this rare instance, Ness raised his voice several notches. “Please!”
Eventually, the noise of the crowd diminished to a degree that would permit him to speak. “I understand your concern. I truly do. But these other problems have been plaguing Cleveland for a long time, and they will continue to do so unless we adopt the vigorous plans I have outlined. We must build on the progress we have already made.”
He drew in his breath and proceeded quickly, before the mob had a chance to start bellowing again. “But I also understand that fear can be a dangerous thing. Whether rational or not. And as safety director, it is my sworn duty to tackle the dangers in our city and to try to eradicate them.”
He laid his hands flat on the lectern. “Therefore, as of this moment, I hereby announce that I am personally taking charge of the torso murder investigation.”
The reporters cheered. They actually cheered. The faces in the crowd smiled. The pencils flew.
Only Congressman Sweeney’s face seemed inscrutable. “With the mayor’s permission, and the cooperation of the police department, I will make this case my number one priority. I will become personally involved in this investigation. I will make sure every child can walk to school without fearing for their safety. I will put an end to these murders once and for all.”
He leaned back, finally feeling his heartbeat subsiding. “And then we can all relax and go back to tackling the fundamental problems preventing this city from reaching its fullest potential.”
There was a spattering of applause, none of it from Sweeney or the blond woman who Ness was certain was aligned with him. Ness thanked them all and raced back up the steps as quickly as he could- without making it obvious that he wanted to get far away as fast as possible.
He removed the handkerchief from his lapel pocket. He was dripping with perspiration. He had walked up to the door of The Harvard Club alone and not even felt his heart race. He had faced down a clan of moonshiners and never blinked. But these reporters and one congressman had made him sweat like a dog in the desert.
“Don’t say it,” Ness said as Chamberlin joined him on the front steps.
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” he replied, pushing his glasses up his nose. “Too obvious. Besides, I like my job.”
“Do you think I saved it? At the end?”
Chamberlin didn’t answer.
“They cheered? Did you hear that? They cheered. So that means I saved it. Right?”
Chamberlin took so long to respond it made Ness’s skin crawl. “That depends upon whether you catch the murderer.”
“Surely it’s just a matter of time. But if they’d hammered me in the press, I’d never get the funding I need for the Boys Clubs. Or the police academy. It was all going down the tubes. So I saved myself. Right?”
Chamberlin tilted his head to one side. “You either saved yourself,” he said quietly, “or crucified yourself.”