I got the call out near the end of my day shift on Friday 7th February. Harry Bennett, the owner of Bennett’s trucking company, and one of his employees had found a pile of severed limbs in the yard behind an empty house in Orange Avenue; number 1419.
I joined the three detectives at the site; it was dusk and I switched on my flashlight. The ground was still frozen but the snow was melting, and the upper half of a female torso was now exposed in the glow of our lights. Dotted around were bits of charcoal, chicken feathers and hay; the macabre scene resembled a voodoo killing. A few feet away lay both legs and the left arm dumped in a heap, but the head was missing.
My stomach heaved. Here was the rest of Flo Polillo – had to be, but why dump it here? Again, it didn’t make much sense – any of it.
Detective Wachsman wore gloves; he nudged the torso with his foot to loosen it, then carried it back to his vehicle. He returned for the limbs; said he would take his grisly haul to the morgue.
I had seen enough; there was a Standard Oil service station across the street; it was a long shot, but someone could have seen something. The long shot was just that, the attendant had seen nothing unusual, nor had any of the customers, and I’d almost given up hope when a paper boy coasted in on his bicycle.
I waved to him. ‘Hey son, hold up a minute.’ He pedaled closer and offered me a paper. I shook my head. ‘You see anything strange over on Orange, recently.’
The paper boy shrugged. ‘There’s a cat house over there. Everyone is strange.’ He pedaled off to the booth, I saw him talk to the attendant who was pointing to where Wachsman was loading up the body parts; the boy went to take a look.
With no better lead, I told Wachsman I’d visit the cat house, see if any were witnesses.
He looked at me in a way that set me thinking about my motives. ‘Carl, you’ll get nothing there but the pox.’
I pointed to my badge. ‘That won’t stop me asking questions.’
He nodded; knew I was an honest cop, alright. ‘You want one of us with you?’
I shook my head. ‘One cop’s enough.’
He started to move away. ‘Okay, we’ll go and talk to the neighbors.’
I walked down the street to the cat house; it wasn’t hidden out of sight, red night lamps on the porch and a regular movement of male traffic. Bordellos in Cleveland were run by crime lords and supported by corrupt cops; Eliot Ness hadn’t got around to busting this one, but if no-one cooperated, I’d put it on his list.
I made it perfectly clear to the madam that it wasn’t a raid and all I wanted was information on a recent homicide.
‘Officer, this is a respectable establishment,’ she said, as if I had come up the Cuyahoga River on a banana boat.
I put my fingers in my ears and stared at her until she got the message. She pulled at my hand. ‘Okay, Officer, I’ll get one of the regular girls to talk to you.’
I let myself be walked inside and across to a small room downstairs that was now an office; there were files everywhere and a large floor safe leaning against one wall. She switched on a lamp and motioned me to a seat. I waited, facing the door…
My father told me how they had trapped Big Joe Lyons in a cat house downtown, which could have been my reason for going to this one. It was a tip off, my father said, from a hooker who had been discarded by Big Joe. When the officers raided the joint, Big Joe was busted with his pants round his ankles. He wasn’t a happy man…
The door opened, and I saw two hookers with worried looks on their faces, peering at me. I stood up and waved them inside. ‘I’m Detective Carl Butler, homicide.’
One of the girls, a bleary-eyed brunette with a fair-sized rack, nudged the tall blonde.
‘Hey, Millie ... is he the Carl you’ve been seeing?’
The blonde shook her head. ‘He was no cop ... and I ain’t seeing him.’
My frown must have given me away.
‘Detective ... there was another Carl. Called in a few nights ago,’ said Millie.
I guess I was surprised – and intrigued. I only knew one other Carl on the force, he was an educated rookie from Germany and his name began with a K – Karl Marx was his tag.
‘Carl, you say? Is he a regular?’
Millie giggled; she gave me one of those coy looks I’d seen on most hookers. ‘Only met him the one time ... the room was dark ... and I wasn’t working on his face.’
I wasn’t there to be sidetracked, although Millie sure had a sensuous mouth and great legs. ‘Did this Carl ... or any other man appear strange ...dirty hands or chicken feathers on his clothes?’
The brunette’s chest heaved with laughter. ‘Mister, most of them got dirty hands, but I ain’t seen any fondling chickens.’
Millie gave her a “shut-up” look, stared back at me. ‘This guy was better-dressed than most; didn’t have dirty hands ... but his were ... you know ...like hams.’
I felt an icy shiver run down my spine. We were still standing there, but I felt like sitting down. Somewhere, I heard a clock strike the hour; I glanced at my watch, it was going on nine; I was tired and couldn’t think straight.
‘Millie,’ I said, stifling a yawn. ‘I need you to come down to the precinct and take a look at some mug-shots.’ I saw her expression change – but I held up my hand. ‘Tomorrow morning ... okay?’
The brunette asked the question that was in my mind, right then. ‘Is this Carl mixed up in a homicide?’
I didn’t know for sure, but the guy with hams as hands had been fingered at Pat’s bar the night when Flo Polillo went missing and then, close to her crime scene.
‘Maybe nothing in it,’ I said.