Despite his numerous years on the police force, including his later years as a detective, Peter Merylo had never before been inside the city hall building. Never had any reason to. He reported to his immediate superior, and these days, to Chief Matowitz. He had nothing to do with the mayor and he didn’t get invited to the mayor’s parties. Which suited him fine. In fact, he preferred it that way and never expected it to change.
Until this morning when, before he could even get himself a cup of joe, Matowitz informed him that he was to report to City Hall immediately.
The safety director wanted to speak to him.
He wasn’t surprised.
Merylo had grabbed his hat, grabbed Zalewski, and made his way downtown. He’d known it would only be a matter of time, ever since he’d learned that Eliot Ness had promised to bring in the Torso Killer. Hard thing to do, unless you talked to someone who actually knew something about the case. In fact, hard thing to do even if you did.
Ness ’s secretary kept them waiting for ten minutes in the lobby outside his office. Merylo admired the lobby, which was itself larger than any office in the police precinct building. But through the window in the door, he could see the vast expanse that was the office of Eliot Ness. Could anyone but the mayor have a larger office? It was hard to imagine. All the furnishings looked new, plush, comfy. Merylo couldn’t help but think about the furniture in his own shabby apartment, the rented stuff his wife had lived with since they’d been married. The only time they ever bought new furniture, if you could call it that, was when he bought a crib for Margaret. Plush sofas and chairs weren’t in the budget of a police detective.
Eventually the door to the office opened and a tall man wearing wire-rimmed spectacles stepped out. Merylo recognized him from the papers-the ones he never read-as being Robert Chamberlin, Ness ’s personal assistant.
“The safety director will see you now.”
Merylo nudged Zalewski. They followed Chamberlin into the spacious office.
Ness was sitting at his desk, working furiously on some sort of report. There were no chairs outside the desk. They stood for almost a minute before Ness spoke.
“You favor a straw hat.”
Merylo blinked. He had been prepared to be pumped for information, criticized for a lack of results, even castigated for poor spelling. But he hadn’t seen this coming.
Perhaps that was the point.
“In warm weather,” Merylo said dryly. “When Cleveland turns cold, I switch to my felt hat.”
Ness nodded. “Prefer a fedora, myself.”
“Not in my budget.”
At last, Ness looked up. His face was soft, but he was handsome. Merylo could see why the papers liked him so much. “Not in mine, either, to tell the truth. But appearances are important.”
Merylo looked at him squarely. “I’m more interested in results.”
“In my experience, appearances can lead to results.”
“In my experience, the only thing that leads to results is hard work.”
Out the corner of his eye, Merylo saw Zalewski staring at him wild-eyed, as if he’d lost his mind.
“You have a reputation for being a bulldog, Detective Merylo.”
He was amazed at how soft-spoken the famed crimefighter was. Didn’t sound like a tough guy at all. More like someone you’d expect to meet out on the tennis court. “I guess I do.”
“Which can be a tribute to your tenacity.” He paused; Merylo suspected Ness was wondering if he knew what the word meant. “Or your stubbornness. Which is it?”
Merylo didn’t blink. “Both.”
“I admire tenacity. But I can’t work with people who can’t take instructions. You get my drift?”
“And I can’t have loose cannons bringing my department into disrepute.”
“You’re afraid I might sully your squeaky-clean image?”
“I have been told that you have a fondness for offensive language. That even when you play a critical role in an investigation, prosecutors hesitate to put you on the witness stand because they fear you will appall the jury.”
“I guess I’m a bad boy, then.”
Ness continued. “Do you consider yourself a religious man?”
“I consider myself a cop. And you don’t get where I am-as a cop- by being religious. Or by talking like a Sunday school teacher.”
“I can comprehend that. But what I’m trying to discern is how much is image and how much is the real you. I have to know who you are before I can know whether I can work with you.”
“What do you need to know? I’m the lead detective on the torso case.”
“That could change.”
Merylo drew in his breath, then slowly released it. “I’m a simple man, Mr. Ness. What you see is what I am.”
Ness rose, then opened a file on his desk. “I think not. You haven’t always wanted to be a cop, have you?”
“In fact, at one time, you considered the priesthood.”
Zalewski’s eyes ballooned.
“You spent a good while at a monastery and-”
“That was a long time ago.”
“Maybe. But men don’t change so much, not in my experience. You may not have become a priest-probably because you couldn’t afford the education-but I wonder if you’re still trying to save souls.”
“Look, could we talk about-”
“You’re the force’s reigning pistol champ.” Ness looked up. “I’m not too bad with a pistol, either. Know jujitsu?”
“Maybe I could teach you. I’ve been thinking about starting a class.” He returned to his notes. “You’re fiercely protective of your family. I admire that in a man.”
“Could we talk about the case?”
“You love violin music.”
“How did you-”
“You speak several eastern European languages fluently, which makes you the perfect person to be conducting interviews with the immigrants living in the Kingsbury Run area.”
“Lots of the men on the force-”
“I know you’re well-read. You’re an autodidact.”
Merylo blinked twice. This time, he really didn’t know what the word meant, blast it all. It infuriated him.
“You’re self-educated. It shows, in your language, when you’re not playing the tough cop. It shows in your work, too. I’ve reviewed your files. You have an impressive record. Chief Matowitz tells me you’re his best detective.”
“Look, are we going to talk about me or are we going to talk about the Torso Murderer?”
“Both.” Ness walked around the desk and leaned back against it, just a few feet away from the two men. “I guess you boys know that I’ve committed to getting involved in this case.”
Zalewski jumped in. “I heard your press conference on the radio, sir. I thought you really told off that Congressman Sweeney. He was totally out of line.”
Ness shrugged. “He’s a Democrat. He wants to use the murders to attack the Republican administration.”
“But you did promise to get involved,” Merylo said. “You promised to bring the killer to justice.”
Ness frowned. “Yes, I did, didn’t I? And you know where that leaves me?”
“You’ve made an impossible promise.” Merylo waited a beat. “And you want us to deliver on it.”
Ness ignored the barb. “The problem with these newspapers is, they get people so worked up they can’t see straight. They think this killer is the only danger the city faces. And now he’s on the west side and there’s a thousand-dollar reward for information leading to an arrest. The city’s going to get even crazier. Good grief-even Happy Hitler took time out from his Four-Year Plan to declare these murders proof of Western decadence. They’ve been denounced in fascist Italy, too. You can imagine how that plays with elected officials. The political pressure to find the killer is fierce.”
“And you put yourself in the middle of it.”
“I didn’t have much choice. I never intended to get personally involved-only to take a more supervisory role. But all that’s changed now. I got the word from Mayor Burton. He wants me to take over.”
“Have you talked to Chief Matowitz about that?”
“I don’t work for Chief Matowitz,” Ness said crisply.
“Look,” Merylo said, “I don’t know anything about politics. All I know is how to be a cop. So tell me-now that you’re taking over-are you going to fire me?”
Ness grinned. “Detective Merylo-that’s what we’re currently in the process of determining.”
Ness had eyed Merylo carefully from the moment he had arrived, while he waited in the lobby, and even later, while they thought he had his head buried in paperwork. He found he could learn most about a man when he didn’t know he was being observed, just as he gained most from an interview when the subject didn’t realize he was being interviewed. Zalewski didn’t matter-as long as he wasn’t on the take, Merylo could pick his own assistant. But if Merylo was going to be the main man on the street, he mattered. Ness had read Merylo’s file and he looked good on paper. But if Ness had learned anything from his time in Chi-Town, it was that what was most important when you were assembling your team was a man’s character-and that was something you couldn’t get from a report.
“What do you know about the killer so far?” Ness asked.
Merylo apparently decided honesty was the best policy. “Not much.”
“With all due respect, Detective, that’s not good enough.”
“We know he’s good with a knife. That leads the coroner to believe he might be a butcher. Or a doctor, but Pearce thinks that’s unlikely.”
“Because doctors are too socially respectable to be killers?”
“And they aren’t usually messed up with lowlife criminals like Andrassy and Polillo.”
“What else do you know?”
“He’s strong. Strong enough to decapitate a man with one blow. Strong enough to lug a corpse out to Jackass Hill.”
“He may be smart. Educated. He uses a chemical preservative, at least some of the time.”
“And he’s managed to kill at least five people without getting caught.”
“Another good point.”
“What’s his motive?”
Ness eyed Merylo carefully, and for the first time the detective hesitated before answering. Ness suspected he was considering whether it would be better to say he didn’t know, and risk looking stupid, or to speculate, and risk being found wrong. “I used to think he was with the mob. But now I think it may be some kinda… sex thing.”
“Because one of the victims had his genitalia removed.”
“But the others did not.”
“True, but he still might-”
“And there’s no sign that any of the corpses were sexually molested or penetrated, correct?”
“How’d you know that?”
“Because I stayed up late reading the files. Haven’t slept in more days than I care to remember. But I don’t think this is a sex crime.”
“The killer totally emasculated-”
“Some of the victims. Not all. And we have victims of both genders. So I have to ask, Detective Merylo-is this conclusion of yours really based on the evidence? Or have your many years working on the vice squad preconditioned you to find sexual perversion even where it may not exist?”
Merylo’s neck stiffened. “You asked me what I thought, sir. I told you.”
“So you did.”
Zalewski chipped in. “Doctor Pearce thinks we should talk to an alienist.”
Ness turned his head slightly. This was this first thing he’d heard in the entire conversation that he didn’t already know. “Really?”
“Yeah. That’s some kinda doctor that reads minds or-”
“I know what an alienist is. I studied psychoanalysis in college. How long ago did he make this recommendation?”
Merylo and Zalewski exchanged a glance. “Several murders back,” Zalewski answered.
Ness pursed his lips. “Tell the doctor we want to talk to his alienist. As soon as possible. Did you know Pearce is planning a seminar?”
“About the murders. He’s bringing some of the best forensic scientists in the country in to examine the evidence and see if they can tell us anything we don’t already know. I plan to attend.” He paused. “I think it might be a good idea if you boys did, too.”
“Does that mean we’re still on the case?”
Ness ignored the question. “You mentioned Andrassy and Polillo. What about the other victims? Have you ID’d them yet?”
“Do you think you can?”
“Probably not. But I haven’t stopped trying. And I never will.”
Ness laid a hand on each of the men’s shoulders. “That’s what I wanted to hear. Now listen to me, boys. I’m not an easy man to work for. I know that. I demand long hours. Hard work. I demand that you keep your nose clean.”
“We’re clean,” Merylo grunted.
“I know that,” Ness interrupted. “If you weren’t, you wouldn’t still be on the force. But things change sometimes, when the going gets tough. I need your word that you won’t bring disrespect to my office.”
Ness turned his eyes upon both men. They looked back at him.
“You have our word,” Merylo said quietly.
“Good. There’s just one other thing I demand from my people. Results.”
Merylo held up his hands. “Look, we’ve been killing ourselves on this case, chasing our tails, doing everything possible. But I can’t make any guarantees.”
“I heard the same thing about Capone, back in Chicago. He’s too big. You can’t bring him down. But we did. And we’ll get this monster too, understand?”
“Yes, sir!” Zalewski said enthusiastically. Merylo said nothing.
“Good. Then I would be very much honored if you two gentlemen would become my primary field lieutenants on this case. You will work directly for me. I’ll arrange everything with Chief Matowitz. You report to me, or if I’m unavailable, to my assistant. And no one else. Not even your buddies on the force. Not even the press.”
“I thought you liked the press,” Merylo said.
“No, my friend, I use the press. Those are two totally different things. At any rate, that’s my job, not yours. I want no leaks.”
Zalewski appeared flush with excitement. “Does this mean we’re going to be Untouchables?”
Ness thought for a moment. That was almost a good idea. But Merylo was too well-known, too high-profile. All he could perform were official duties. What if he had a group of people out of the spotlight? People who could go beyond official duties…
Ness smiled. “You’re already untouchable, officers, as far as I’m concerned. Now we’ve got to be unbeatable.”
“Yes, sir!” Zalewski actually saluted.
“All right then. Get to work. I’ll expect a report at eight o’clock tomorrow morning. And every morning thereafter until this murderer is caught. I’ll be formulating a plan, and as soon as I complete it, I’ll give you specific instructions. I will expect to see them implemented expediently and effectively. So you’d best get started.”
He watched as the two men left the office. He hoped he wasn’t making a mistake. In the past, he’d always obtained the best results by creating his own team, rather than adopting the men already in place. But he needed men with police experience, real crime-solving skills. With Capone, they already knew who was behind the crimes; they just needed the evidence to bring him down. In this case, they had no idea who-or what-they were fighting.
He had spoken rashly to the press. If he didn’t deliver, they would eat him alive like the piranhas they were. And there were other considerations…
Involuntarily, his mind returned to the postcard he had received. He had not turned it in to the police, nor had he given it to the Bertillon department for analysis.
It was possible it was a fake. One of the nuts all this press coverage was sure to shake off the tree.
But what if it wasn’t? What if the killer saw this as a personal grudge match? A battle between him and the Fed who supposedly brought down Capone?
The man who wrote that postcard knew where he lived. And Edna.
He returned to his desk. He had implemented the first part of his assault on the so-called Torso Murderer. Now it was time to implement Phase Two.