Peter Merylo desperately wanted a bath.
Even a quick shower would be something. He looked grimy, felt greasy, and reeked like an outhouse. Maybe none of the people he encountered noticed. But Merylo did. Normally, he was a tidy, fastidious man. He didn’t dress up fancy like Ness, but he didn’t let himself go. Until now.
He’d been undercover for a week, his beard grown and his clothes torn and dirty, traveling all around the Kingsbury Run area, searching for clues, talking to anyone who would talk to him, which so far, was not as many as he would like. He had expected that. He knew vagrants were a suspicious lot, and with reason. He would have to hang around for a while, become one of the regulars, before anyone would tell him anything useful. That was fine. He was in this for the long haul.
This time of day, most of the transients were either working, if they could find anything, or sleeping. He used the time to look around, at the people, the sorry excuses for homes, the abandoned buildings…
Just a few hundred yards from where the first headless corpses had been discovered, he passed through a long dark tunnel. Gave him the creeps. Sure, he had his.38 hidden securely under his hobo outfit. But that wouldn’t do him much good in this pitch darkness; he wouldn’t even know which way to point it.
He walked slowly and carefully forward, wondering if the Torso Killer had passed this way when he was delivering his little surprises. What if he had? Or worse, what if he were there now? What could Merylo possibly do about it if that maniac suddenly appeared in front of him and-
Merylo shook himself, breaking the train of thought. This was not productive. He needed to keep his mind on what he was doing.
In the distance, he detected a tiny pinprick of light. He walked toward it, and as he did, the radius of the circle grew steadily larger.
Eventually, he emerged into the sunlight, very glad to be there. Off to the side, he spotted a row of repair shops tucked inside a side gully. All the shops appeared to be closed and boarded. How hard would it be for the killer to break into one of these shops and use it as a base of operations, a place to conduct his slaughter? It was close to where the identified victims lived, and close to where most of the torsos had been discovered.
The doors were unlocked. Inside, he saw tall stacks of scrap metal and tires and automobile parts. But no sign of life. Or death. Behind the first shop he found a deserted building. Small, but large enough for one man. Especially if he wasn’t very social.
Merylo peered inside a window. He spotted empty food cans, a blanket, some torn and yellowing newspapers. But that was hardly telling. Given the huge number of transients in this area, this dump might seem like an ideal place for many to spend the night.
He peered through another window. There was a lightbulb dangling from the ceiling. It was on.
Someone had been here recently.
Merylo turned the knob. Unlocked.
Did he need a warrant? The place looked abandoned. At least, that’s what he would tell the judge.
He stepped inside.
The room was almost entirely bare. The only furnishing was a small bench by the north window. He sat down on it and looked around.
There were dark stains on the floor. Not nearly enough to suggest that anyone had been killed here, much less decapitated. But still…
Was it possible the killer had brought the bodies here while he rested, or waited for an opportune moment to deposit them on the Run? A strong man could have gotten Andrassy’s body from here to where it was found only a few hundred yards away.
If the killer had been here, he must’ve sat on this very bench. Or perhaps he placed the torsos on this bench while he waited for a chance to dispose of them.
Either way, Merylo didn’t care to sit any longer.
He searched through the shop and the neighboring buildings but he found no signs that they had been used as a depository or a slaughterhouse.
Still no clues. And yet, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he was onto something, that he was walking in the killer’s tracks.
He spotted a crowd gathering about two hundred feet away, near the river. Time to stop playing policeman and to start acting like an unemployed bum. He’d decided not to tell people he’d ridden in on the rails, since he had been reliably informed that everyone knew about the torso murders all across the country, and consequently no one was stupid enough to get off the train here.
It looked like the usual assortment of society’s refuse, the downtrodden and the riffraff, the crooks and the con artists, the sick and the suicidal. His many years on the force made it a cinch to tell who was who. Huddled around a barrel he saw prostitutes, marijuana dealers, numerous small-time crooks-and too many decent men having their spirit snuffed out by the Depression.
As he approached, he realized there was some sort of commotion. A middle-aged woman was lying on the ground. A man Merylo had never seen before knelt beside her. He was tall, medium weight, sturdy-and definitely not a vagrant. His suit was clean and untorn; in fact, it looked fairly new. He wore eyeglasses and had a salt-and-pepper mustache.
Merylo stepped closer so he could hear what was happening, trying not to attract attention.
“There now,” the man said. “That should do it.”
The woman looked dazed, disoriented. Upon closer inspection, he realized her right arm was in a sling.
“It’s only sprained, not broken,” the man said. He smiled reassuringly. “Just try not to use it for a few days. Should be fine.”
The woman’s hand went to her brow. “I-I don’t know what happened to me.”
“Passed out, from what these boys tell me.”
“Why would I do that? I’ve never-”
“When was the last time you ate, Agnes?”
The woman averted her eyes. “It has been awhile.”
“I thought as much. Look, you come by the Sailors’ Home tonight around dinnertime. Mary cooks a wonderful pot roast on Thursday nights. I think there’ll be enough to share with you.”
“Thank you. Thank you so much.”
The man looked up. “But that just goes for Agnes. I don’t want to see the whole lot of you showing up.”
“We’re all hungry,” one of the men said softly.
“You know where the missions are.”
“There’s never enough.”
“I know that. I know.” The man pushed to his feet. “Perhaps things will turn around soon. Remember what the President says. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” The man tipped his hat and walked away.
Merylo couldn’t help but notice that he had a slight but noticeable limp. Looking even more carefully, he realized that his right leg was longer than his left.
What was it that alienist had said…?
As the crowd began to disperse, Merylo approached the oldest man in the group. In his experience, the oldest were the most likely to talk. Many of them had been on the road a long time, even before the Crash. As a result, they were less scared and suspicious. He appeared to be about sixty, although it was often hard to tell with these transients. Life on the road aged a man prematurely.
“That was really somethin’,” Merylo said, careful not to act too interested. “Never seen anythin’ like that.”
The elderly man pursed his lips and blew air through his teeth. “Aw, all he done was put her arm in a sling. Didn’t need to go to medical school for that.”
Merylo’s ears pricked up. “That man was a doctor?”
“I figure he must be. Everyone calls him Doc.”
“You’ve seen him before?”
“Sure. Comes through these parts every now and again.”
Merylo laughed a little, trying to sound like a bored man making idle conversation rather than an investigator pursuing a lead. “Doesn’t look like he belongs in this neighborhood.”
“He’s not one of us. He just cuts through here on his way home. Not afraid to give a little help when he can, though, and that’s more than I can say for most of the people in this city.”
“You’re tellin’ me that fancy Dan has a joint of his own around here?”
“Not exactly a joint of his own. He’s stayin’ at the Sailors’ Home.”
Sailor? Merylo’s skin began to tingle. “But ain’t that a place for-”
“Yup. People with problems.”
“And the doc-?”
The man pantomimed taking a drink.
“He looked pretty sober to me.”
“Guess he can go a long time. Then he flies off on a binge. We don’t see him for days.”
Merylo’s eyes narrowed. Indeed.
“And then he shows up again, fit as a fiddle. Shame, really. Ought to be some way to help a person like that.”
“Isn’t that what the Home is supposed to do?”
“I suppose. Say-why you so interested in the doc?”
“No reason. Just passin’ the time. Not like I got anything else to do.”
“I hear that.”
“You got any idea what the doc’s name is? I might ask him to take a look at my bum shoulder, next time he comes through.”
“I’ve heard folks call him Frank. Frank Sweeney.”