“Mr. Ness! Mr. Ness!”
“Can’t stop, boys. I’m working.”
“Just a short interview.”
“Can’t do it.”
“The people want to know-”
“Sorry, must keep moving.”
“Not even a picture?”
Ness slowed. “Well… make it quick.”
The photograph revealed Cleveland ’s esteemed Safety Director, Eliot Ness, and a substantial number of police officers, standing in the very heart of Shantytown. All around him were low-level homes-if they could be called that. They would be more accurately described as shacks, cardboard boxes, piano crates. Tents, in a few instances. Squalor was everywhere. The few people visible were dirty, tired, malnourished. It was like a snapshot from hell.
Ness continued moving.
“What are you doing out here?” one of the reporters, the one from the Courier, asked as he chased after him, running at his heels.
“Trying to catch a killer. Most of the victims have been deposited in this area. Stands to reason that the killer lives here, or at the very least is a frequent visitor. Someone must have seen him. Might not have known they did. But they did.”
“Do you think the killer is a transient?”
“I think many of the victims were. That’s what makes them so hard to identify. Even that fellow who’s on display at the Exposition. No one recognizes them because they weren’t here long, didn’t make friends. What friends or family they may have had didn’t know they were here.”
“What do you think of Shantytown?”
Ness hesitated. He had to be careful. “I think President Roosevelt is doing everything he can to improve the economy. But when men are out of work, crime is a natural consequence. Who knows what forces may have driven this killer to murder? All I know is this is a good place to look for information, whether this is the killer’s headquarters or his favorite hunting ground. So I’m going to talk to these people. And we are going to catch this killer, my friends. Mark my words. We are going to catch him.”
Once Ness shook the reporters, he was able to do some real work. Even if this trip was mostly for show, there was no reason not to try to accomplish something while he was here. He wanted to search more thoroughly. Unfortunately, most of the residents were closemouthed- understandably so, since most of them were harassed by law enforcement officers on a regular basis. Even shabby homes like these were protected by the Fourth Amendment; he couldn’t go in without permission or a warrant. And he couldn’t force anyone to talk.
Thank goodness the official channels were not his only angle on the case.
Late in the afternoon, while his men were combing the area, Ness spoke to a man who said he was thirty but looked fifty. He’d been riding the rails since the Crash of ’29 and it showed. Said his name was Jones, but Ness suspected it wasn’t. He was hesitant to talk at first- and hard to understand, because he had lost most of his teeth-but once Ness charmed him out of his suspicions and road-learned reticence, he spoke more freely.
“I came in on one of the last trains into town,” he explained. “Haven’t been any more. It’s getting hard to get in or out.”
“How’s that?” Ness asked.
“Word’s out on the hobo circuit. Stay away from Cleveland. Cleveland is where folks like us get their heads cut off. And no one’s doing anything about it.”
Ness suspected that probably would cut down on the desirability of a train stop or a free ride. It had certainly made a dent in tourism. “I know the trains are still coming into town.”
“Trains, yeah. But no passengers.”
“None. Ask the railroad cops. Used to be a steady stream of bindle stiffs coming through here. No more. Nobody wants to be in Cleveland.”
Even though hobo traffic was hardly desirable, Ness couldn’t help being disturbed by this pronouncement. He was the safety director, after all. It was disappointing, after all the work he had done, to hear that Cleveland was considered too dangerous even for the lowest strata of society. “And you said no one was getting out?”
“Too many cops. Keeping too close an eye on everything. Ask ’em. There’s twice as many cops around here as there used to be. They say they’re looking out for this killer, and maybe that’s so. But the end result is that a lotta folks like me are gettin’ beat up and it’s gettin’ a lot harder to sneak a ride out of town.”
“Did you ever consider taking a bus?”
“I could be wrong, mister, but I hear tell those buses require money. I haven’t had a job in two years. And that one didn’t amount to much.”
“Have people been trying to leave town?”
“Are you kidding? You think anyone wants to be here right now? Bad enough to have a killer preying on the unfortunate. Hell of a lot worse when you can’t get away from him, no matter what you do. They don’t know which of us will be next. And it ain’t good when people get scared, mister. When people get scared, they get dangerous. Do crazy things. Could be riots, violence, all kind of trouble. Just a matter of time. It’s like a powder keg in there. And you know as well as I do- once the powder keg is lit, everything goes up in flames.”