Back at the precinct, Wetzel sat in on my interview with One-Armed Willie in a small cell room with a barred window that looked out over the Cuyahoga River. I must confess; I was feeling run down after weeks of frustration, sleepless nights and a throbbing headache that aspirin couldn’t touch. I was feeling bloody-minded and as sore as hell that we hadn’t cracked the case. Nevertheless, Willie was my suspect - my only suspect - and I started the ball rolling.
‘When did you last see Florence Polillo?’
Willie was a known pimp and a drunk. He looked more like a hobo, dressed in a shabby overcoat over dungarees. He frowned. ‘I ain’t seen her, awhile,’ he said.
Wetzel nodded, and I banged my fist on the table, which didn’t ease my head any. ‘Not since you had an argument and killed her … isn’t that right Willie?’
Willie jumped like he’d been shot. His face turned a lighter shade of black, almost a gray color. He struggled to gasp out the words. ‘I need a drink, mister.’
I ignored his request. ‘Tell me what happened, Willie. Tell me how you did it.’
He coughed, and wiped his mouth with a dirty rag he pulled from his coat pocket. His eyes were focused on mine; there was an air of conviction in his statement. ‘Mister … I didn’t.’
In my three years with homicide, I could tell when a suspect was lying. Willie wasn’t. Wetzel nodded again. I suspected he thought the same, so I repeated my first question, hoping to trip him up if I was wrong – but more so, because I needed another lead before my head exploded. ‘When was the last time you saw her?’
Willie screwed up his eyes as if trying to break through the alcoholic haze to his addled brain. He seemed to reach a decision of sorts. ‘Could have been Pat’s bar; we go there most days.’
A drum started to boom inside my head, my hands started to twitch; I felt like throttling the black bastard. It must have shown on my face, because Wetzel glanced at me and intervened. ‘Willie,’ he said. ‘We can bang you up for life if you don’t fucking cooperate. So start thinking straight. I want dates and times.’
Willie was still looking at me, possibly afraid I might hit out or something. He coughed up some more phlegm before rasping out his story.
‘Okay, okay – hold your fire, mister. Let’s see … last Friday night, when the Dockers got paid. I was having a drink with Pat when she showed.’
Wetzel nodded at him to continue while I rubbed at my headache, trying to ease away the tension. Willie blinked at me; he got the message not to fuck us around.
‘We had a few shots, but then she wanted money. I said find a docker; she yelled it was too cold outside. We had an argument about it.’ Willie paused as if he was thinking how to put it – maybe to show him as being the innocent in all this. ‘I might have pushed her, but then she turned nasty and started brawling like she was real mad. Next thing I knew Pat chucked her out. That’s it. … like I said, I ain’t seen her since.’
Wetzel looked at me. I wasn’t satisfied. Not by a long chalk, but I eased off the gas. ‘So what did you do, then?’
Willie scowled. ‘Nothing, mister … I had a thirst on; stayed until I used up all my money. Then went back to my rooming hostel and dozed off.’
‘Can anyone vouch for you?’
Willie shrugged. ‘Pat could, I guess.’
‘Mister, like I said. I had a thirst on. Don’t see one day to the next, sometimes.’
I counted to twenty while Wetzel probed one more time. It didn’t make any difference, Willie was all used-up.
We put him in a cell.
I took another dose of aspirin before I set back out again. Wetzel called me pedantic – anyone could see we had nothing on Willie – but Willie was my only lead. I trudged through the drifting snow, went back to the bar and talked to Pat - who gave me a lot of blarney about keeping a respectable house – but Willie’s story checked out.
I wasn’t going to let it ride so easy. ‘You see anyone who might have gone with Florence – or anything unusual?’
Pat screwed up his eyes. I was bad for business and he just wanted to get shot of me, but he seemed willing to cooperate. ‘Now you mention it, there was this Joe ... better dressed than most … and quiet. Kept himself to himself, but he left in a hurry after I chucked … restored order. Left two bits on the bar … didn’t wait for change.’
Now I was interested. ‘What did this Joe look like?’
The clock on the wall above Pat’s head chimed and another customer came in – thin, wiry type with splashes of paint on his shirt and white dust in his ginger hair; could have been an Irish laborer, there were plenty in town. Pat started to wipe the bar top with a towel, but I guessed he was thinking it through. He poured a shot for the paddy without being asked, and then turned back to me.
‘Regular guy, but big … looked like he could take care of himself. Had his hat on so I didn’t get a real good look at him, but when he took off his woolen mitts…’ Pat stopped, and rested his hands on the bar – the fingers looked large enough and strong enough to bend an iron bar. Pat stared at me. ‘This Joe had hands like mine.’
That’s all I could get out of Pat, but it was another lead. I quit the bar and stepped back outside, then hiked through the slush to Willie’s rooming hostel. The janitor remembered Willie coming in as he was closing up for the night because Willie was drunk as a skunk; didn’t see him again until Sunday night. Willie’s story had all checked out; there was nothing to pin him to Florence Polillo’s death.
We let him go, the following day.