SEPTEMBER 10, 1936
“How many of them do you think there are?”
Merylo gazed across the small creek to the shore. “Hundreds. No, thousands. Thousands since we got here.”
“What are they waiting for?”
“The head. Or better yet, the killer.”
“So they think he’s just going to show up and make a guest appearance? Return to the scene of the crime?”
“He has before. About five times.”
“Not while anyone was looking.”
“As far as we know.”
The crowd on the shore was so thick that the fire rescue squad had a difficult time getting through, and an even worse time getting their pumps into position. Merylo had called for more men, just to control the crowd. But he knew that would take time-and they might not come at all.
Zalewski pulled on the oars, propelling the small boat they were in just the tiniest bit forward. “Jeez-some of those people even brought their kids! Why do they come?”
“Who the hell knows? Bored. Unemployed. Most of the people living in Shantytown don’t have a lot to do during the day.”
“That don’t cover it all. Look at some of those guys. Suits. Fancy hats. Better than mine. They aren’t unemployed. They’re first-class citizens.”
“I guess everyone’s interested in this case now,” Merylo mumbled, but he knew there was more to it than that. Some came, looked awhile, and moved on. Others had been here all day and showed no inclination to leave anytime in the near future. More people than attended the Great Lakes Expo in the course of a day. More than came to town for the Republican National Convention or the American Legion Convention, or any of the others.
The Torso Killer was now Cleveland ’s number one attraction. Or detraction. It had become the thing most famous about Cleveland, its national calling card.
The murderer had killed six people, possibly more, in gruesome, horrifying ways. And he would kill again. All the spectators crowded on the bank of this foul-smelling, stagnant pond that they euphemistically called a creek knew that.
“You quizzed the guy? Harris?”
Zalewski nodded, still straining against the current. “Colored guy. Vagrant. Around twenty-five or so. Hails from St. Louis, came in on a train. Was looking for a ride out when he saw two halves of the torso floating in the water. Called the police.”
Merylo nodded. For once, the response of the police department had been speedy and deliberate, not that it made any difference. They got the two portions of the decapitated torso out of the water and sent them down to Pearce’s office, then began looking for the rest of the victim. The fire rescue squad searched the pond with grappling hooks. When that produced nothing, they switched to ceiling hooks, larger and heavier. They discovered the lower halves of both legs and they were still looking, hampered by the crowd that only increased as word spread through the town and went into a near frenzy every time a new body part was discovered. Merylo and Zalewski borrowed a boat from the Coast Guard and rowed into the center of the pond with the grappling hooks, hoping they might find something that had drifted from the shore. With no arms and no head, they had virtually no chance of discovering the identity of the victim.
“Oh yeah,” Zalewski said, puffing out his cheeks as he strained against the oars. With the hooks down, the boat was tough to move. “The guy always leaves us clothes, doesn’t he?” He brought the oars around again. “Blue workshirt, gray felt hat, dingy green underwear. Shirt and underwear have bloodstains. Probably knife marks. So where does that get us?”
“Nowhere. As usual.” Merylo sighed. “Want me to take a turn at the oars?”
“Nah. I got it.”
Merylo nodded. Even if Zalewski was his assistant, he didn’t want the man to think that meant he had to do all the rowing. Then again, it was pretty hot outside…
“Mind if I ask you a question?”
Merylo thought a moment. “I suppose that depends on the question.”
“What d’ya think of that Ness guy?”
“I think he’s our superior.”
“He isn’t even on the police force.”
“But what do you think of him? What do you think of him taking over our case?”
“It’s not like he wanted it.”
“I don’t know,” Zalewski said, bringing the oars around again. “My Myrtle says she thinks he’s a glory hound. He knows the torso case is where the headlines are.”
Merylo shook his head. “Whatever else he may be, Ness is smart. Very smart. He knows this case is quicksand. Great exposure if we catch the killer, but who knows how long that may take? No, he was much happier dealing with traffic lights and gin joints. Things he could control.”
“You think he really wants to work with us? ’Cause my Myrtle thinks he’s just using us. For if we don’t catch the killer. He’s gonna use us as… as… what was her word?”
“Yeah. That was it. What d’ya think?”
“I think if we don’t catch the killer-soon-it’s not going to be pretty for anyone.”
“But we got no clues! How can anyone expect us to catch a killer when we got no clues?”
“People aren’t interested in excuses. They want to stop being scared. Even though there are a thousand other things out there to be scared of, what with what’s going on in Europe and all. But right now the Torso Killer has their attention. They want him stopped.”
“Even if we do stop him, I bet Ness takes all the credit.”
“Is that what Myrtle thinks?”
“Yeah. How’d you know?”
Merylo smiled. “I’m sure Ness would acknowledge our valuable contribution.”
“Sure. Haven’t you noticed? Whenever someone brings up Capone, he always reminds them that a lot of people worked on that case. It was a team effort.” He gazed across the pond. “But how many of those people does he mention by name? How many have you seen in the papers? His apparent modesty just makes him seem all the more important.”
“Maybe we should catch the killer and not tell him.”
“Maybe Ness will catch him and not tell us.”
“Really? You think so?”
“Anything’s possible. The only thing that really bothers me is- Ness has no background in police work. He may know how to bust up mobsters-known entities who aren’t hiding. But he has no experience with detective work. And he’s running the show.”
“So what are you gonna do about that?”
“I’m going to do whatever the safety director tells me to do,” Merylo said. “But I have a few plans of my own.”
Merylo didn’t answer. He turned his attention to the near shore, where thousands of people were still watching the show. “We need to fan out. Search the area. Talk to people.”
“How we gonna do that? We can’t even get enough men to keep the crowd in line.”
Merylo slowly turned to look at his assistant, drenched in sweat from rowing the boat. “Zalewski-you’re brilliant.”
“I think you’ve just answered your own question.”
“We need more able-bodied men. And I see about a zillion of them on that shore.”
“You’re not thinking-”
“You can’t pay them.”
“I won’t have to.”
“It’ll be chaos.”
“It already is. But I can tolerate some chaos. If it gets us our killer.”
“Listen to me!” Merylo bellowed, trying to be heard above the roaring crowd. “I need your help!”
“You sure do!” someone shouted back. Half the crowd laughed in response. The noise was thunderous.
Merylo began to wonder if this had been a very bad idea. He was perched on a wooden ledge on the edge of the pond, atop a dumping platform, to increase his visibility to the crowd.
“Listen to me. Please!”
Eventually, the tumult subsided. “We need to search the area. The whole Run. Look for clues. A head, for instance. Maybe a witness who saw the body get dumped.”
“Isn’t that what the police are for?”
“The police are stretched to the outer limits. We got all these conventions in town, plus these murders and a lot of other crime. It would take days for my men to search the area, and by that time the trail might be cold.”
“What’s in it for us?” someone shouted. “We need cash.”
“I can’t pay you.”
“If you don’t pay, we don’t work.”
“Why? You got something better to do?” That got a large laugh. Merylo liked it better when they were laughing with him, not at him. There were a lot more of them than there were of him. “Listen, some of you people live out here. Do you like having this killer running around slaughtering people? Do you feel safe?”
“No!” came a chorus of replies.
“Then help me stop him. Be my foot soldiers. I’ll be here all night long. If any of you find something, you report back to me. Let me split you up into groups so you can canvass the area. Systematically. There’s enough of you to cover the whole Run before nightfall. What do you say?”
As Merylo expected, he received a mixed response. That was okay. He didn’t need all of them.
“All right then. If you’re willing to help, line up over here. Let’s send a message to this monster. Let’s tell him that if he goes after the Run-we’ll go after him!”
Another enthusiastic response. Merylo felt like Henry the Fifth on the eve of battle. These people would probably encounter less danger. But they were no less important to the cause.
He gazed out into the crowd. What a motley, ragtag assortment of humanity. He saw men in tattered clothes; he saw men in three-piece suits. He saw sunbaked faces and calloused hands; he saw men who obviously had never done a day’s labor in their life. He saw some who had already ruined their lives with booze or drugs; he saw some whose lives were just beginning. The employer and the unemployed. The book-educated and the street smart. And a few who appeared to have no smarts at all. Didn’t matter. He could use them all.
“All right, you four, take the east side of Thirty-seventh and walk due north until you reach the tracks…”