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Max Allan Collins

Angel in black

1

The two pieces of her lay porcelain-white in the ankle-high grass and weeds of a vacant lot on South Norton Avenue, like the upper and lower sections of a discarded marionette. No strings could ever reanimate this disassembled figure, however-a sadistic puppeteer had made certain of that.

“Jesus frig,” Fowley said, as ashen as the bisected corpse that lay, bizarrely posed, alongside the sidewalk. “Where’s a fuckin’ photographer when you need one?”

We were in a neighborhood of Los Angeles called Leimert Park, an area where development had been stalled by the war, and the weedy lots retained sidewalks, driveways and fire hydrants, as if the houses had been whisked away by a particularly tidy tornado.

“Yeah,” I said, “Richardson wouldn’t want to leave entertainment value like that just layin’ around.”

James H. Richardson was Fowley’s boss, the city editor of Hearst’s morning Examiner, and Bill Fowley-son of a legendary New York American editor-was one of about twelve guys who fancied themselves Richardson’s star reporter.

A rumpled gray porkpie hat sitting tight on his round skull, Fowley had the same reddish brown hair as me, only his was cropped close to the scalp, like a guy going to the electric chair. He was small, a good five inches shorter than my six feet, and forty pounds lighter than my one-ninety; he was almost swimming in a baggy light brown suit, wind whipping it-I wasn’t swimming in my tan double-breasted gabardine, but the wind was making waving flags out of my pantlegs, too.

“What am I thinkin’?” Fowley said, pacing at the feet of the spread-eagled, on-its-back bisected corpse. “Felix keeps a spare Speed Graphic in the trunk. Here…”

He lobbed me the keys and I caught ’em.

“… grab it outa there, Heller. You know how to use a friggin’ Speed Graphic, don’t you?”

I was not a reporter, star or otherwise. I was, and for that matter am, Nathan Heller, at that time president of the A-1 Detective Agency of Chicago, which is to say a private detective. And since a good deal of my business, over the years, had been divorce work, yes, I knew how to use a friggin’ Speed Graphic.

But I didn’t feel like shooting grim pinup photos of a nude, dead, once-beautiful woman, and declined, graciously.

“Fuck you, Fowley,” I said. “Take your own ghoulish goddamn pictures.”

Whirling, Fowley-who looked like a pleasant bulldog, only right now his expression wasn’t all that pleasant- said, “You want to keep me happy, don’t you, gumshoe? Or don’t you and your partner still want that free publicity?”

“No need to get shitty about it.”

“Maybe you cheap bastards would rather hire a p.r. agent than get the Examiner ’s goodwill, for fucking free.”

I unlocked the trunk and fetched the camera. Fowley was normally an amiable joe, but he had just caught front-page fever: the bisected body in this vacant lot had all the earmarks of a headline story… a beautiful woman, butchered by some maniac. Sex and murder-ideal breakfast reading.

The morning was almost cold under a gun-metal sky, the breeze bristling the weeds into tickling the two halves of the girl, who-unlike the rest of the scattered refuse, rusty cans, disintegrating cardboard, broken bottles- had been carefully arranged, as if by an artist; buzzing flies circled this lurid masterpiece, critics having a closer look.

Her arms were above her head, as if someone had poked a gun at her and demanded money; her legs were spread wide, as if in carnal invitation. But there was nothing inviting about this young woman, not anymore. Her raven hair a tangle of damp curls, she had been cleaved at the waist, the two sections crudely aligned, the top half of her angling somewhat into the lot while her left foot pointed to the nearby sidewalk. Her lily-white flesh had a waxy look, and appeared strangely clean, despite slashes to her face and to either well-formed breast, and to one shapely thigh; a nasty vertical gash extended from her navel to her wispy pubic thatch.

“Not much of a bush on her,” Fowley pointed out.

“Jesus, Fowley.”

“All I mean is, she’s just a kid,” he said, shaking his head as he scribbled in his notepad. The buzz of flies sounded like fluorescent lighting shorting out. “She could be fifteen.”

“Or twenty,” I said, and the bisected corpse strobed even whiter under the Speed Graphic’s flashbulb.

In the ten or eleven inches separating the two sections of her, green grass waved in the wind, except where her distended liver matted it down.

A sick feeling boiled in the pit of my stomach. I was not a novice to crime scenes; I had seen my share of grisly homicides. I was thirty-eight years old and an ex-cop and a combat veteran and it took a hell of a lot to make me sick.

But this was the worst, most brutal, as well as saddest homicide victim I’d ever seen-a once-lovely young woman, carved in two, then arranged with thumb-to-the-nose glee by the sick fuck responsible. Yet there was more to my reaction than the tragic loss of young life and the grotesque sadism that had caused it.

Memories were stirring in me. I had been part of an investigation in Cleveland, not quite ten years before, and had been at a similar crime scene, a rubble- and rubbish-infested dump in the middle of town, where the torso of a young woman had been found. In some respects that one had been even worse: the head, the arms, legs, and feet had been severed and scattered about the dump like so much garbage, making a puzzle out of a human being to be reassembled by the police. The murder had been one of thirteen torso slayings attributed to the same maniac.

And we had found that psychotic son of a bitch, my friend Eliot Ness and I, and we had given him a lifetime enrollment in an Ohio laughing academy-the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run, the newshounds had called him. He was safely tucked away in a padded suite; nonetheless, the resemblance of this bisected torso slaying to the Butcher’s modus operandi stirred memories in me, and nausea.

When that memory had passed, as I kept playing photographer for Fowley (“Here, I’ll stand blocking her dirty parts, Heller, and you shoot from behind me, and we’ll get something Richardson can goddamn publish”), another memory, jogged by the windblown grass, kicked in…

After the Japs had come at us in the morning, up a slope of golden kunai grass, screaming “Banzai,” machine guns chattering, we cut them down with our M-1s and they dropped into the grass, scattered about like ragdolls, bodies in the weeds, flung there by our bullets, bodies barely visible, and that afternoon as we waited for the next wave of them, their dead lay puffing and ripening in the sun, sending a sweet foul wind riffling through the grass…

I lowered the camera, turned away.

“Heller! Nate… are you okay?”

I nodded.

“Shit, man, you look whiter than she does.”

When I turned back around, Fowley-porkpie hat shoved back on his head now-was hovering over the fly- attended corpse, way too close.

Anger blotted out the nausea, and I charged over and yanked him back. “What the hell are you doing? You’re tainting a crime scene! Stay away from her!”

Close up like this, I noticed for the first time the purple bruises and rope burns around her wrists and ankles. She’d been tied up, probably tortured.

“I was just gonna close her eyes,” Fowley said. He looked shaken.

That was when I got my first real look at the girl’s face; I’d been avoiding it, I guess, because the sadistic artist had reserved perhaps his most grotesque touch for her high-cheekboned, movie-star-pretty countenance: she

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