From the morning edition, February 24, 1937, Cleveland Plain Dealer:
“… when fifty-five-year-old Robert Smith, cruising near the Lake Erie coast in his sailboat, spotted a mysterious object on the shore. Closer inspection revealed that it was a body part, a woman’s torso, missing head and arms, that had washed up on the shore. There were no footprints nearby. Presumably the torso was tossed in at a different point and carried there by the tides.
“According to the police, the woman was approximately thirty years old, five feet six, and 120 pounds. She had light brown hair and, based upon the condition of her lungs, lived in the city. Detective Peter Merylo said the police had several leads they were pursuing, but given the repeated lack of results, it is hard to know whether to take such claims seriously. Merylo also claims he found a zigzagging trail of blood running from the shore to Lake Shore Boulevard. Merylo was following up reports of two suspicious men in an automobile parked on the Boulevard. This paper, however, has uncovered a witness who, hours before, watched a dog hit by a car limp all the way to the shore. It would seem, therefore, that the distinguished Detective Merylo is more likely to capture a dead dog than the barbarian plaguing our community.
“When questioned about these matters, Chief Matowitz insisted that although they still had not located the Torso Murderer, the police investigation has been so intense that over two dozen other serious criminals have been apprehended, as well as more than a dozen dangerously disturbed persons who were referred to mental institutions. While that may be of comfort to the police department, it gives no relief to the people of this city who wonder every night when it will be possible once more to walk the streets of the city without fear, without risk of becoming the next victim of this monstrous killer. Cleveland’s shame has become a national story, holding the entire country in rapt fascination and horror, not only at the atrocities performed, but by the police incompetence and continued inability to catch a single killer. This paper formally calls for the police department to undertake the most thorough and exhaustive efforts to bring this maniac to justice.
“The office of Safety Director Eliot Ness was contacted before this story ran, but we were told that he was unavailable for comment…”
“You know I hate this sort of thing.”
“You said you wanted to get out more.”
“With you. With friends. Not with a thousand random people I don’t know and don’t care to know.”
“Honey, I think you have a rather unpleasant attitude about this.”
“I bet there will be lots of high-society swells. And reporters.”
“Perhaps. Why do you think so?”
“Because otherwise, you wouldn’t be here.”
Ness gave his wife a long look. He hoped the driver wasn’t listening, but how could he not? Didn’t matter-he’d probably heard a lot worse in the past.
He and Edna had seen each other less and less since he rented the apartment downtown. He thought that was what she wanted, and it certainly made it easier for him at the end of a long night of work. There was no questioning, however, the fact that they had grown farther apart. Even if before all they ever did was fight. Now they had lost even that, and there seemed to be very little left in its stead.
“That was cheap.”
“But true. You only bother with me when you want to be seen in public with a wife on your arm.”
“That’s baloney. It’s just that it’s a long way from our house to downtown.”
“Don’t I know it.”
“If you’re so bored, I would think you’d welcome a chance to get out.”
“For the mayor’s ball? Black ties and big shots and everyone wanting something and angling on how they’re going to get it. Is that your idea of a good time? Because it is certainly not mine.”
“The mayor wants to be reelected. We want him to be reelected, since he’s the one who gave me my current job. I have to be here.”
“Yes, I know.” Edna sighed wearily. She turned slightly and adjusted his bow tie. “And you do look splendid in your tuxedo. Like Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. You’re a handsome man, Eliot.”
“Thank you kindly.”
“Just wish I saw more of you.”
“I know you do. And as soon as we catch this killer-”
She held up her hand, stopping him cold. “Eliot, please. I’m not a fool. Just don’t bother.”
The driver pulled their car up to the curb outside the front door of the majestic Biltmore Hotel. A doorman opened the rear door and helped Edna out of the car.
Together, they made their way to the ballroom, admiring the elegant long, silky evening gowns that passed by.
“I feel so out of place here,” Edna said under her breath.
“You shouldn’t. You’re the prettiest girl in the joint.”
“Oh, I am not.”
He touched her on the arm, still moving forward. “You are to me.”
As they stepped through the ballroom doors, Ness didn’t even need to pass the announcer his card. He was recognized immediately.
“Mr. and Mrs. Eliot Ness.”
There was an immediate response: clapping and cheering and even a little squealing with excitement. Ness was pleased to realize that the killings had not totally eliminated all public appreciation of him and his work-at least not yet. They entered the cavernous ballroom, sumptuously appointed with marble floors, Doric columns, crystal chandeliers. A full band was playing a popular tune. Ness didn’t get much chance to listen to the radio, but he thought it was “It’s De-Lovely.” He liked Cole Porter. His songs always had such clever lyrics. Edna preferred Irving Berlin.
Within minutes he and Edna were surrounded by people he didn’t know. The mayor’s assistant, Wes Lawrence. A lovely young heiress named Katy Conrad. Richard Turnbull, the owner of the largest slaughterhouse in the city.
“What was Capone really like?” Miss Conrad asked breathlessly. Ness sensed Edna thought she was standing entirely too close to him. “Are you really untouchable? I’m not.”
More well-wishers and spectators swarmed around them.
“Why are you government boys so opposed to a drop of bourbon here and there?”
“Are you really leading a Boy Scout troop?”
“My husband says there must be three Eliot Nesses, identical triplets maybe, to get done all you get done. Is that true?”
“I’m telling you, these illustrated comic stories are going to be the next big thing. I could get you in on the ground floor.”
“My uncle doesn’t like you very much. He says The Harvard Club was the only place he could go to get away from his wife.”
“That Shantytown is deplorable! When is the city going to do something about it?”
“Spiritualism is a true science now, you know. The existence of the other world has been proven. I could show you photographs.”
“When are you going to catch that Torso Killer?”
The conversation, if you could call it that, ground to a halt. An oppressive silence suddenly filled their circle.
“I’m sorry,” the woman mumbled, covering her mouth with a white-gloved hand. “Did I say something wrong? Do you prefer to call him the Mad Butcher like the papers do?”
Ness smiled slightly. “I think perhaps it’s time to get my wife some punch.” He gently carved a path through the crowd and tugged Edna forward… right into Congressman Sweeney.
“Where are you going, Ness? I’d like to hear you answer the young woman’s question.”
“I can assure you we’re doing everything we possibly can.”
“I’m not a reporter,” Sweeney said, tugging at his vest. “So don’t try to soft-soap me. This city expects results. You are the safety director, after all.”
“And I have fulfilled all my duties as Safety Director and then some, Congressman.” Ness glanced behind him, checking to see if anyone was listening. Naturally, they all were. “Have you seen the latest reports on labor racketeering? We’ve achieved some major convictions.”
“Well and good, not that anyone really cares.”
“Did you hear about my bribery investigations? That got the Torso Killer off the headlines for a few days.”
“And now he’s back again, isn’t he? With a seventh victim-probably eighth, counting that unfortunate woman found in the lake before you became safety director. For that matter, there have probably been many others, perhaps dozens, that we know nothing about, because the body parts haven’t yet washed ashore.”
“You don’t know that.”
“I know this-the killings will continue until you do something to stop them. The city is terrified. I have a cousin who lives here, and he tells me he’s so scared when he walks home at night it’s driven him to drink! And let me tell you something else, just in case you’re wondering-it won’t be good enough to find this monster and charge him with tax evasion. The people want him dead!”
Ness knew he should just stay quiet, but he was finding that increasingly difficult these days. He was tired of being criticized because he couldn’t do the impossible, when he was substantially improving this city on a daily basis. “Is that your opinion as a concerned citizen? Or as a Democratic congressman who would very much like to see a Democrat in the mayor’s office?”
Sweeney arched an eyebrow. “Is there a difference?”
Edna intervened, stepping between them. “Gentlemen, we all want this killer caught. And we all know he will be in time. This isn’t about politics, right, dear?”
Ness mumbled something under his breath.
“This is about public safety. And we all want that, regardless of what party we claim as our own.”
“True enough,” Sweeney acknowledged.
“Now if you’ll excuse me, Congressman, my husband has promised me some punch. And after that, I’d like to see if the famed leader of the Untouchables still knows how to cut a rug.”
The people surrounding them laughed. Edna took him by the arm and led him away.
As soon as they had some privacy, Ness whispered: “I didn’t need to be rescued.”
“Are you sure?”
“I can handle that blowhard.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. You’re good with the press, Eliot, because all they want is a nice picture and a nice story, and you’re almost always good for both. But men like Sweeney won’t be put off so easily. They have their own private agendas. There’s no point attempting to reason with them because they have no intention of being reasonable. He wants Burton out of office, and since appointing you is the best thing Burton has done during his entire term, Sweeney would love nothing more than to see your star acquire some tarnish. The only chance he has of seeing that happen is to make as big a deal as possible out of these murders. Because he knows perfectly well that no matter what you do you may never catch the killer.”
“I know you’re working hard, Eliot, both with the police and whatever secret efforts you’ve got rolling.”
“How do you know about that?”
“I’ve been married to you a long time. But I can also see that this killer is probably never going to be caught until he makes a mistake. And there’s no way of predicting how long that might take. Sweeney wants to exploit your helplessness to his own political advantage.”
Ness gave his wife a long look. “You sure you don’t like politics? Because I think maybe you’re the one who ought to run for mayor.”
She rolled her eyes. “A nightmarish thought. The fact that I can see things for what they are is exactly why I would never run for anything. And the fact that you can’t is exactly why you might be tempted.” She took his arm. “Enough of this. Now take me by the arm, Mr. Untouchable, and flash that goofy Jimmy Stewart smile of yours, and twirl me around the dance floor. Make my head spin. There might be something in it for you later.”
His eyes lit up. “Gladly, my lady.”
They had barely finished the first waltz-not Ness ’s best dance, the rhythm was too tricky-when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
Mayor Burton was standing behind him.
“No,” Ness said, “you may not cut in. We’re just getting started.”
“I’m not looking for a dance, Eliot. I want to talk.”
Ness kept his grip on Edna’s hand and waist. “Can this wait till office hours?”
“I’ve called your office every day this week and I still haven’t gotten a reply.”
“You know how busy I’ve been.”
“Yes, I do, but I still need to talk to you.” He bowed his head slightly. “Would you please excuse us, Mrs. Ness?”
Edna did not look at all happy about the interruption. “I suppose we can’t say no to the mayor.”
“Now that’s an attitude I like. Wish my own wife shared that view.”
He pointed toward a room on the side of the ballroom, a room Ness had noticed the mayor passing in and out of throughout the evening. It was a small alcove, more like a large closet, stark by comparison with the opulence outside. But Ness supposed it was sufficient to provide the only thing Burton wanted at the moment: privacy.
Mayor Burton closed the door, then launched in. “I suppose you know Congressman Sweeney has been running you down all night.”
“I exchanged a few words with him earlier.”
“And had to be bailed out by your wife. At least according to him.”
“He’s using this Torso Murderer to cut you down to size, Eliot, and by association, me.”
“Why did you invite him here? You know he’s a political opponent. I hear he has ties to President Roosevelt.”
“He has ties to the newspapers, too, and that’s a good deal more worrisome. Word is he pays for positive coverage. No way to prove it, of course. I tell you, Eliot-you want to investigate bribery, you should start with the newspapers.”
“Unfortunately, I’m not sure taking money to write a story is even illegal.”
“If not, it should be. Fraud on the public, that’s what I say. Eliot- you’ve got to catch this murderer.”
“We’re doing everything possible, sir. I’m working closely with the police. They report to me every day. I also have some… private efforts under way. Undercover work. They’ve rattled a lot of cages.”
“But they haven’t caught the killer.”
Ness threw up his hands. “No, all I’ve managed to do is reduce traffic fatalities from four hundred a year to less than forty. To clean up the police department. Break the back of the mob and the labor racketeers. Take the worst juvenile crime rate in the country and reduce it to nearly nothing. I’ve also rooted out extensive political bribery-”
“Which made you no friends in my circle, believe you me.”
“Which is exactly why it needed to be done. By someone outside the political process. I have done my job, sir. I have made this city a better, safer place.”
Burton laid his hands on Ness ’s shoulders. “And no one will remember a bit of that if you don’t catch this killer.”
“That’s not fair.”
“People are fickle, Eliot. They will turn on you in a heartbeat. You’re too high-profile to fail. The press will hound you relentlessly. The public will never forgive you.”
“I don’t believe it.”
Burton turned away. “If you haven’t made any progress by the time the reelection campaign gets into full swing-I’ll have to consider replacing you.”
“I’m sorry, Eliot, but I can’t appear complacent. I have to be in motion, always taking action to address the public’s concerns.” He exhaled wearily. “If you can’t do the job, I’ll find someone who will.”
“Are you threatening to fire me?”
“I won’t have any choice.”
“Over my dead body!” Ness stomped out of the room, slamming the door behind him. He grabbed Edna and, before another crowd had a chance to gather, led her out of the ballroom.
“Leaving so soon?” Edna asked, as he tugged her down the hotel hallway.
“Not soon enough,” Ness growled.
Ness woke the next morning feeling rested but restless. The mayor’s words still reverberated in his head. After all he had done for the city. All he had done for Mayor Burton.
He strode into the living room of the lake house, still wearing his pajamas and bathrobe. At least Edna had been friendly last night. She obviously wasn’t too disappointed about leaving the party early, and he thought she was pleased that he came home with her.
The house seemed exceptionally tidy, even by Edna’s standards. Why was that? There was nothing out on the kitchen cabinet, precious little in the living room. Had she just decided that if she had no visitors there was no reason to do anything?
He opened the nearest closet and found boxes packed from floor to ceiling. Boxes filled with personal belongings. As he opened a few and inspected the contents, he realized that it was all Edna’s stuff, many of her favorite things, none of his.
Had they never been unpacked since they moved here?
Or was she packing now?
He closed the closet, suddenly concerned. As if he really needed one more thing to worry about.
It was then that he happened to glance at the front door, thinking about going out to get the paper. Mail had been pushed through the slot.
Was the mail delivered this early in the morning?
There wasn’t much. Only one piece, actually. On closer inspection, he realized it was a postcard.
The front was just like the previous two he had received. On the back, in what was the same distinctive handwriting as before, someone had written:
Ness felt a cold chill race down his spine. Then he noticed something even worse.
The postcard bore no stamp, no postmark.
It had been hand delivered.