The Flesh, the Blood, and the Fire Excerpt

[2] Wednesday, September 5

It was still Summer, but the dark clouds boiling off the lake seemed to carry the first knife edge of Winter on them. Detective Stefan Ryzard found himself looking up every few minutes as he walked through the park, toward the beach. Occasionally he gabbed the brim of his hat to keep a particularly strong gust from blowing it away.

From the look of the sky in the direction of the lake, dark as a fresh bruise, they were in for one beaut of a storm. The threatening sky had done a lot to thin out the late season crowd at Euclid Beach Park, and it was too easy for Stefan to believe he walked the broad avenues alone. The wind seemed to suck up every sound except for the rumble of a coaster, a noise that could easily be faraway thunder, and the insane laughter of the mannequin outside the funhouse.

The mannequin was a cartoonish female figure looming over passers by. As he passed, it rocked back and forth with an amplified laugh. Between the manic laugh and the cartoonish paint makeup, the thing reminded Stefan of drunken prostitute, more tragic and frightening than amusing.

He walked past it, and the rides, and the Humphry Popcorn stand, until he reached the pier and the walkway along Euclid beach. Here it wasn’t deserted. Kids, most younger than fourteen, lined the railing overlooking the beach. Half of them had climbed up on the rail and were craning their necks as if a baseball game was being played on the beach below. Standing behind the kids, adults milled around, watching over their heads. Most had the manner of waiting for a streetcar, a few whispered to each other, and a few— the ones with the least pretense, and coincidentally the most shopworn clothes— wore expressions of undisguised curiosity.

Stefan pushed his way through the crowd to the stairs leading down to the beach. At the bottom a lone uniformed policeman blocked his way.

“Sir, You have to watch from up there,” he waved a baton toward the spectators.

Stefan fished out his badge and said, “Detective Ryzard.”

The uniformed cop looked at the badge and shifted the direction of his baton, “Oh, everyone’s up the beach over there. And Inspector Cody wants everyone keeping an eye on the shoreline, in case anything else washes up.”

Stefan nodded, “Has the wagon shown up yet?”

The cop shook his head, “Nope, everything’s still like they found it.”

Stefan stepped down, past the cop, and let his shoes sink into the sand. The soles of his feet felt an anticipatory itch, grit was going to fill his shoes before he walked ten yards.

“Watch it,” The cop said, “ain’t pretty down there.”

Stefan said, “Thank you, officer,” and walked down the beach. He wasn’t too worried about what he was going to see. He had seen plenty of bodies in his career. He had been a patrol officer in the Roaring Third before he made Detective. Even today the assignment was just this side of Dante, during Prohibition it was even worse.

The third was poor, violent, and just this side of completely lawless. Stefan had started in a place cops usually ended up. Coming from the third made all the stand up cops wonder how bent you were, and it made the bent cops— who assumed everyone else was bent— wonder what kind of screw up got you assigned to the third in the first place.

In his stint there he’d seen more bodies than some funeral directors. Corpses had lost their impact on him through sheer repetition.

A knot of people were assembled a fair way down from the Euclid Beach pier. About half were uniformed officers, about half wore suits. They all seemed subdued, as if something about the crime scene or the oppressive weather made everyone leery of raising their voice.

When he walked within twenty yards, one of the suits waved him over. “Detective, Ryzard!” he said. Stefan recognized Inspector Cody. He was holding the brim of his hat and shouting at Stefan through the wind. His tie had gotten loose, and every few seconds would flap toward shore.

Stefan waved acknowledgment without shouting back. The small crowd parted to let him walk up next to the crime scene. He got there in time to see what was left of the victim bathed in the flash of a police photographer.

The flash dazzled him for a moment, and for a few seconds a part of his mind too primitive to know cameras waited for the rumble of thunder.

“Washed up sometime last night,” Inspector Cody said, “during the last high tide.”

Stefan nodded as he raised a hand toward his nose as the near subliminal smell began sinking in from the remains. It smelled of the lake, but there was an odor of corruption that turned his stomach.

He bent to look at what Lake Eire had disgorged on to Euclid Beach. It was discolored and wrapped in seaweed, so at first it was hard to make the mind perceive it for what it was. From a distance it could have been a twisted piece of driftwood. This close, the texture of the purpled flesh made it hard to make that mistake. Even this close— Stefan took out a handkerchief and raised it to his mouth, bending until he was barely a foot away from the surface of the skin— it was hard to tell what this had once been. The mind was used to seeing the human body as a unit, if it saw disjoint pieces it was as functional units, arms, legs, head.

It took nearly a minute for Stefan to see the remains as part of a human body, even though he had some idea what to expect even before he drove down here.

“Who found it?” he asked, unable to turn away. He could see it now, the curve of a thigh, the bend of a hip. His mind finally acknowledged that he was looking at the lower half of a woman’s torso, severed at the abdomen and at mid thigh. He could now mentally place the bones and muscles in their proper relationships.

It was the most appalling mutilation he’d ever seen.

“A gentleman named Frank La Grossie,” someone answered his question. “He was out for a walk this morning and almost tripped over it.”

Stefan slowly unbent and turned to Cody. “How often do things wash up from the lake like this?”

Cody shrugged. “More often than I’d like. Who knows, it could be some med school’s cadaver.”

Stefan looked up at him and said, “Half a cadaver?”

He shrugged, “Just struck me that the cutting seemed awful neat.”

Stefan looked at the body again, at the wounds where it had been separated from the rest of itself. It did seem that the wounds were too neat.

This body had not been torn, the separation had been done deliberately with some sort of blade. That much was obvious even as corrupted as the corpse was. “No idea how old it is?”

“We have to wait for the coroner to look at it.”

Stefan nodded and walked around the remains, stepping aside occasionally for the photographer. After a while, Stefan asked, “Have you noticed it?”

“Noticed what?”

“Fish, something, should have eaten pieces of this while it was in the water. And it looks to’ve been in the water a long time.”

A uniformed cop spoke up, “Maybe it’s burnt? The color looks like someone messed up burning the body.”

Yes, if the color’s charring instead of decay, that’d explain that.But it didn’t smelllike someone’s fresh attempt to dispose a body.

“There’s another thing,” Stefan added. He waved a hand over the corpse. “No flies.”

Cody shook his head and muttered something that sounded like, “Christ.”

The flash of a bulb came from behind him and Stefan turned to look at the photographer. “What’s over there?” he asked.

The photographer took the stub of an unlit cigar out of the corner of his mouth and pointed at the sand midway between him and Stefan. “Dead bird,” he said, “probably nothing.”

It was a seagull, partly buried in sand the tide had washed in. there was no indication of what had killed it. Stefan looked up and saw the seagull’s fellows massed far down the beach, awaiting the coming storm. For a moment, Stefan had the oddest sensation that every gulls’ back was turned to their fallen comrade, as if the dead one had committed some unpardonable sin that even death could not forgive.

Stefan turned back to the thing that used to be part of a human body and wondered if its presence seemed as ominous to the others as it did to him.

He had seen lots of bodies. He had thought that such scenes had lost the ability to disturb him. They hadn’t.

Looking at the body, Stefan felt threatened. He his faith shaken in a way he hadn’t felt before. For a moment it seemed that the light of God had abandoned this stretch of Euclid Beach, and his own presence made him a participant in some unholy sacrament.

“Who would do this to someone?” he whispered to himself.

Cody waved at the lake, a slightly darker shade than the sky, and said, “Like I said, most likely something a medical school disposed of. Second most likely, some Capone type chopping up the victim to make it hard to identify. Who knows how long it’s been floating out there, it could have drifted all the way from Chicago.”

Stefan nodded, though it seemed more likely that the body floated out of their own Cuyahoga River.

Eventually the Coroner’s wagon showed up for the body, and there was little left for them to do but walk up and down the beach and look for more pieces. No more showed up. Not there.