I was sitting next to Lieutenant Harvey Wetzel at the precinct, working on our Jackass Hill murder report, when the call came through. I could hear the caller distinctly.
‘It’s Charles Page, Hart Manufacturing. I thought they were stolen hams, but they’re not. You’d better take a look.’
Wetzel frowned, and raised an eyebrow at me. ‘What?’
‘I reckon they’re pieces of a human body, that’s what.’
I gulped. So did Wetzel. He stared at the handset as if it would provide the answer. ‘Are you certain?’
Page’s voice was raised a few octaves. ‘Officer … I can see a finger poking out of one of the baskets, they’re not hams, that’s for fucking sure.’
I felt my insides tense up; it was a bad feeling alright. Orly May’s prophecy seemed to coming true.
Wetzel recovered before me, and he didn’t waste time.
‘Stay right there,’ he told Page. ‘We’re on our way.’
The report was forgotten. We jumped into action and soon a large contingent of police headed by Captain Duffy arrived at the Hart building to encounter a bizarre crime scene. Charles Page was standing guard over two half-bushel baskets resting on the frozen snow. Beside them, a couple of discarded burlap sacks. Nosy neighbors were standing nearby, silently watching.
‘There,’ he said, pointing at the baskets. I moved across to take a look. Inside, were several packages wrapped in newspaper. Duffy gave me the ok, and I carefully peeled off the paper from the largest parcel.
I nearly dropped the damn thing back in the snow. It was meat all right – frozen, but not hams; instead, the lower half of a female torso. I shivered, not because of the cold but because I could guess what we would find in the other parcels. Wetzel helped out; our total haul contained two thighs, and a right arm with the hand still attached. One finger – the one that Page had seen, appeared to be pointing at my heart – accusing me of neglect.
I swallowed back hot bile, and tried to think. We had discovered some body parts, but not all – and the head was missing. Captain Duffy leant over the torso and pointed; there were black bits embedded.
I shook my head – how the fuck would I know, but I gave it my best shot. ‘Looks like coal dust to me.’
Captain Duffy gazed around the yard area. No coal bins, only a sea of frozen snow and ice. He frowned. ‘It doesn’t make much sense ... search around.’ He started waving his arms around to whip up enthusiasm. ‘See if you can find any more bags.’
I felt the cold creeping through my suit, freezing my emotions so that I could stomach what I had witnessed. Half-heartedly, I poked around with a stick I found; the picture of the torso still fresh in my mind. To my relief, all we found was cotton underwear also wrapped in newspaper and later, another burlap sack covered in blood and chicken feathers sticking to it, but no more body parts.
Duffy just shook his head, as if in disbelief. ‘What the heck’s going on?’
None of us knew. None of us wanted to know. But all of us wanted to find the fiend who had murdered the woman.
I watched in morbid fascination while the hand was fingerprinted and photos were taken, then the remains were dispatched to the morgue. While the onlookers drifted away, I took one last look around. What had been a white landscape, I now saw only mushy boot marks and footprints all over; any chance of finding the killer’s amongst them had gone.
But again, I had that eerie feeling that I was being watched.
Our response was pretty quick. On the same day we started to comb the missing persons’ reports and checked out the whorehouses on East 16th and East 20th; that drew a blank, all the white girls were accounted for, but then we struck lucky; the fingerprints matched one of our crime records. Florence Polillo was well known to us as a part-time barmaid and part-time prostitute who had been recently arrested for selling liquor from an unlicensed property. Seemed like she drew all the wrong cards.
Now, she was a headless victim.
We pressed all the panic buttons to nail down the killer but our initial leads hit walls, and the newspapers were full of it; the Press headline screamed, “Woman Slain, Head Sought in Coal Bins.”
The following week I trawled the bars, brothels, and bootleg operations in the Roaring Third to try and track down the lowlifes that she hung out with - they seemed endless, but I got a break. A bootlegger pointed me to a black man called One-Armed Willie who had lived with her once; he said theirs was a rocky relationship; always fighting.
I arrested One-Armed Willie in Pat’s bar, East 20th.