Peter Merylo had been on the Cleveland police force for more than fifteen years, most of that time as a homicide detective. But he had never seen anything like this. Never.
“You say two boys turned this in?”
Lieutenant Zalewski nodded. “Found it this morning. Ran for the first adult they could find. He called it in. Before we had a chance to get anyone out here, two white kids found the same thing.”
“Kids play out here a lot?”
Zalewski shrugged. “Guess so.”
“Four kids find the same corpse the same day. That suggests there’s enough traffic to find it anytime. So the corpse must not have been out here long.”
“Possible somebody found it but didn’t say anything.”
Merylo stared down at the corpse in question. “Somebody stumbled across this mess and kept it to themselves? I don’t think so.”
The corpse was male, although that was not immediately apparent because he had been thoroughly emasculated. He was stripped naked, all except for a pair of dirty cotton socks on his feet. And his head had been severed-head and neck actually-cut clean across the shoulders.
“Think he kept the head for a souvenir?” Zalewski asked.
“How should I know?”
“Kind of person who could do something like this, I think he kept it for a souvenir.”
Merylo’s bushy eyebrows knitted together. “How long have you been at this work, Lieutenant?”
“Almost two years now. Sir.”
Merylo nodded. “I thought as much.”
Merylo was a short man, stocky, muscular, with large eyes highlighted by dark circles earned over the course of fifteen years courting the worst element of society. He had a bulldog reputation. Maybe he wasn’t the brightest man on the force, but he was a hard worker, tireless. His wife and daughter would be the first to say so. And the fact that his mug could scare the truth out of Satan himself gave him a great edge in the interrogation room.
Like most of the Cleveland police force, Merylo had no education past high school, but contrary to what most people assumed, he was no dummy. He took pains to keep himself educated. He read the slicks every week, high-quality magazines, so he knew what was going on in the world. He even read the made-up stuff, like the stories in Argosy and The Saturday Evening Post. He loved Scientific American and he genuinely believed science was going to change the world for the better. Any day they’d be driving flying cars and using sunlight to power engines. The world was changing, and he was not going to be left behind.
“A more logical reason for keeping the head,” Merylo suggested, “would be to make it difficult to identify the victim. ’Cause if we can’t figure out who the chump was, figuring out who had a motive to kill him is pretty tough.”
Zalewski pondered. “Huh. Hadn’t thought about that.”
“Still got the men searching?”
“Oh yeah. Every available member of the No. 6 Police Emergency.”
“I count four men.”
“Well, you know, the Emergency’s never had much of a budget. I hear that Eliot Ness guy wants to change that. Get us the money we need. Think he will?”
Merylo grunted. “If there’s a photographer nearby.”
Zalewski and Merylo both swung their heads around. A uniformed officer raced down Jackass Hill at a speed that outpaced his coordination. He tumbled face first to the ground, then rolled for at least ten feet.
There was a brief pause as the officer pulled himself together. He patted himself over from head to toe, as if checking to make sure everything was still connected. Then he pulled himself to his feet, obviously mortified, and brushed dirt and grass from his uniform.
“Something to report?” Merylo said, trying to keep a straight face.
“Yes, sir. They-they found it, sir.”
“Could you be a little more specific?”
The officer was having trouble getting the information out. He stuttered several times before anything emerged. When at last it did, he spoke in a whisper. “The head.”
Without another word, Merylo made his way up the hill.
“Well, this blows my theory, doesn’t it?”
Lieutenant Zalewski wasn’t sure what he meant. “Your theory, sir?”
“That the killer cut off the head to disguise the identity of the victim. Can’t expect it to stay a secret long if you leave the head twenty feet away from the body on the same side of the hill.”
“He did bury it.”
“But left hair sticking out. Enough for your man to find it. If the killer really wanted it hidden, I imagine he could’ve dug a little deeper.”
“Then why did he do it, sir?”
“Do I look like Dick Tracy?”
“No, sir. Haven’t got the chin for it.”
Merylo gave Zalewski a long look. If he didn’t know better, he might suspect that this na"ive, witless man wasn’t quite as much of either as he first thought. “Maybe he’s trying to send a message.”
“So it’s a mob thing. Lots of mobsters in town these days. Eliot Ness said so.”
Merylo took a deep breath. “Then it must be true. Look, kid, I don’t know what the reason is, but I know there is one. A logical explanation. We need more evidence before we start running around guessing why anyone would do something like… this.”
The head had deteriorated considerably, but Merylo could still make out the essential features. He was a fairly young man, Caucasian, dark hair parted on the left side. But the face seemed strikingly different from the many faces of the dead into which Merylo had peered over the years. His skin seemed unaccountably reddish, tough, leathery.
He’d seen a lot of mob rubout victims, too. But none of them ever looked like this.
Something was wrong here.
“You still got those kids nearby, Zalewski? The second pair who reported finding the body?”
“Sure. They’re brothers. Steve and Leonard Jeziorski. They’re in a car on the other side of the Hill. Why?”
“I want to talk to them.” He paused. “Something here doesn’t add up.”
Zalewski pulled a face. “You think they’re lying?”
“No.” He stood up and granted himself the temporary mercy of looking away from the severed head. “No, I don’t. But there’s still something wrong here.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow, sir.”
“Didn’t those boys you’ve got describe the corpse as fat?”
“I think the word they used was ‘stocky.’ ”
“Yeah, that’s the word people always use when they’re describing fat to someone who’s fat. Problem is-our corpse isn’t fat.”
“Well, they’re just boys, sir. I doubt if they spent very long looking.”
“Said he was on the short side, too, didn’t they?”
“Our corpse is tall. Almost six foot, I make him. Adding in a head, of course.”
“What do boys know? Everyone looks tall when you’re their age.”
“But they said he was short.”
“Well, everyone looks short when they’re lying on the ground. With no head.”
“Have you given this head a good long look?”
Zalewski’s voice dropped a notch. “Not any longer than I had to.”
“He’s young. Barely more than a boy. Skinny.”
“Like I said-”
“This is not the head of a fat man. For that matter, the neck isn’t the right size.”
Merylo removed his hat and wiped his brow. “What I’m trying to tell you, Zalewski, is that this head doesn’t match that torso.”
“But-it has to. I-I don’t understand how-”
“You don’t have to. Just get your men back into the field. And call headquarters. I want more officers out here. I don’t care if you have to pull boys in from other precincts. I want two dozen police officers scouring this hill. Fanning out all across the Run if necessary.”
“They won’t like it, sir.”
“As if I care. Get the men out here. Your boys in the car didn’t find the same corpse as the kids this morning. They found another one.”