A Chunk of Meat

The faux-airdale, with the missing ear, broke away from his owner, and ran towards a metal trash can whose top lay on the ground beside it. The can was pushed up against an elongated and ugly several-storied wooden building painted a dull yellow, adjacent to a polluted inlet in China Basin on San Francisco Bay that flowed in and out under the well-known landmark of the Third Street Draw Bridge with its heavy cement weights that were used as balance to keep the roadway erect when it was necessary to elevate it so barge traffic could maneuver in and out of the inlet.

Approaching the can, the dog was startled when it tipped over; its contents spilling out on the already littered ground, and a large raccoon scampered away from the rocking can and entered a broken air vent underneath the building.

At first, the dog bolted after the frightened animal but abruptly stopped when it got to the overturned can. It started sniffing intently and inserted its snout into something wrapped in burlap that had tumbled out onto the ground.

By then, the owner of the dog had caught up with him and regained control by grabbing the leash just as the dog began tearing at the burlap fabric with his teeth. He woman could see flesh and icicles being ripped apart and blood flung in all directions. Her reaction was to pull the dog back as hard as she could before he made a real mess of things and covered her with red splatters, too. She retreated to one of the wooden staircases that gave access to the abominable looking building, tied the dog firmly to it; then she sat down on one of the risers to figure out what to do. She was a woman in her fifties; her blue-gray hair was covered with a nondescript bandana. She had walked through that grungy industrial park next to the Bay from her home on Castro Street on a daily basis, as a way of getting fresh air and much needed exercise, since her evenings were tied up in the smoke-filled bar Camelot on Nob Hill—a bar which she owned along with others, but which she was responsible for operating.

Melba Sundling had just gotten over a long winter bout of bronchitis, with the help of several ancient Chinese remedies. Now she felt it was important to get in shape, and the daily walks with her dog helped. She noticed that they also improved her disposition and sense of humor, and surprisingly made her feel more competitive with her athletic daughter Blanche who’d come to help her when her bouncer and confidant, Rafael Garcia, was sent to prison and later killed protecting another inmate.

The thought of what might be inside the sack shook her from her reverie, and she got up and walked down the stairs and picked up a piece of discarded lathing that lay nearby and began poking at the burlap bundle as the dog strained to participate. She pulled back the fabric until she could identify what looked like big chunk of meat and what she thought was skin. Not sure of what to make of it, she closed the flaps of the sack that had been ripped open by Excalibur, the dog and pulled the animal away; then walked quickly to a phone booth she’d passed on the way, while she continued to restrain.

She dialed the operator and asked for the medical examiner’s office; then quickly dialed the number. It was now midmorning and luck was with her, he was in. The clerk who answered the phone recognized her voice from his many nights at Camelot and put her through to his boss.

"Hello, Melba. To what do I owe this honor?" asked Barnaby McLeod, the medical examiner and also one of her frequent customers at Camelot.

"I’m not sure, Barney. I was out walking my dog and he came across a chunk of meat wrapped in a burlap sack. Ordinarily I wouldn’t have thought anything about it; but it looked like it had been sawed and it had icicles on it, so I didn’t know what to make of it. Then I decided it was better to get in touch with an expert, because it might be human."

"You called the right guy, sweetheart," said the examiner. "Where are you? I’ll come down there myself."

She explained where she was.

 "Wait for me. I won’t be more than twenty minutes. Keep everyone away from your find."

"That won’t be a problem. Nobody knows it’s there except you, me, my dog, the raccoon that tipped over the can and whoever left it there," she said before she hung up.

But she wasn’t through. She wiped the sweat off of her pale forehead, puffed up her blue-gray coif under her bandana and dialed again. "Samuel Hamilton, please," she asked the operator. The call was put through.

"Samuel here," the reporter answered. He was seated in his new and improved office, its only drawback being that he had to share it with another reporter from the morning paper. From there he could look out the window down onto the foot of Market Street and see the Ferry Building with its giant clock ticking off the minutes and hours. His khaki sports coat was draped over his wooden swivel chair. His white shirt was not pressed, but it wasn’t quite wrinkled either, and what was left of his red hair was combed straight back across his freckled pate.

"Samuel, this is Melba."

"What a surprise. Did something happen to Blanche?" he asked worriedly, his voice rising in anguish.

"Are you kidding, that broad’s indestructible," she answered. "But listen for a minute. I have a situation here. It may be nothing, but you never know. I’m down at China Basin and I just found a chunk of meat. I’m not sure if it’s human, so just in case I called old Turtle Face and he’s on his way down here. You interested?"

"I’ll jump on the Third Street bus right now," said Samuel. "Do I need a photographer?"

"I’ll leave that up to you, big shot. Just hurry!"

"That makes it easy, I’ll hitch a ride," he said, as he opened his office door still talking to Melba and yelled down the hall, "Marc, we’ve got a live one, let’s go!" Then he hung up the phone.


*          *         *


Barnaby McLeod, the medical examiner, was a tall man with a small head, thinning brown hair and drooping eyelids. He had on a white medical jacket open over his shirt and tie. He was poking at the burlap bundle with a pointer when Samuel arrived with Marcel Fabreceaux, his photographer, in the latter’s green ’47 Ford coupe.

Samuel waved hello to Melba and scratched an excited Excalibur on the head, then turned to Turtle Face. "Hi, Examiner McLeod. Haven’t seen you since we were together at Mr. Song’s many Chinese herb shop. That was over a year ago," said Samuel, trying to look around the tall man to see if he could make any sense out of the bundle the man was scrutinizing.

"Yeah," grimaced Turtle Face. "That son of a bitch, Perkins. I still haven’t forgiven him for dragging me through that mess with the claim check for the Chinese jar. Remember that?"

"How could I forget it?" answered Samuel. "That case made me the full-time reporter that I am today, instead of a starving ad salesman." Then he began to concentrate. "What do we have here, Chief?"

"News travels fast in this town," said the examiner, giving as much of a smile as anyone would ever get from him. He glanced over at Melba, who up to then hadn’t said anything. Now she walked toward the group of men, pulling Excalibur who wanted to get at the meat. Turtle Face extended his hand to stop her. "Don’t get too close until I’ve had a chance to make a thorough examination. I don’t want this crime scene contaminated."

"You’ve already decided it’s a crime scene," noted Samuel, as he motioned to Marcel to flash a photo of Barney McLeod, with his pointer in hand, looking down at the mysterious sack on the ground next to the building.

The examiner and the two men he had with him had cordoned off an eight-foot-square area around the turned-over trash can and were painstakingly going over every inch of ground, photographing every stray piece of flotsam and jetsam that had accumulated there since whenever, or had spilled out of the can when it was knocked over. Each piece was picked up with rubber gloves, examined for fingerprints, given a number and put in the evidence box. When they’d finished that task, the examiner focused on the burlap sack.

"You see the icicles on the flesh?" he commented absentmindedly. "This meat must have been in a freezer."

Samuel could see them from behind the tape. There were several long thin ones stuck to the meat. "It also looks like it’s been sawed. See those markings on it?" interrupted Samuel.

"That’s what I thought too," said Melba.

"Pardon me," said Turtle Face, coming back to the present. "I agree, it looks like somebody sawed it up a bit."

"Can you tell how long it was in a freezer?"

"Not right now. I need to get this to the lab, fast."

"Isn’t there some writing on the sack?" asked Samuel. "See, it looks like an M near the bottom."

"Yeah, but I’m not ready for that yet. First I need to make some slides and see if I can confirm my suspicions," said Turtle Face.

"That it’s part of a human being?" asked Melba.

"Of course. Otherwise there’s no need for all this fuss."

"How soon can I get a confirmation?" asked Samuel. "I’d like to write a story on this before you make it public."

"Let’s talk this afternoon. By then, I’ll be able to tell you if we have a part of a corpse."

"Will you also tell me what the letters on the sack say?" asked Samuel.

"Not for publication. If there’s enough to figure out where the sack came from, it may be the most important clue," said the medical examiner. "Are we on the same page, Samuel?"

"Sure, I can just say that the authorities have an important piece of information that only they and the killer know about."

"That is, if there is a killer. It may be that it’s just horse meat," said the examiner, and he gave that hint of a smile again.

"What about the significance of the other things you picked up today?" asked Samuel.

"Only time will tell what’s significant. But when you stop by, I’ll give you a list. That way you’ll have the same one the police get and you can do a little detective work on your own. From what I read in the newspaper, you’ve done a pretty good job in the last two years."

"Thanks, Barney." Samuel beamed as he walked to where Melba and Excalibur were standing on the landing above the wooden staircase. He motioned to Marcel that he had enough. And it was true. Turtle Face had said the magic words—he knew he was going to get inside dope.

Melba was smoking a cigarette and leaning on the banister when he approached. Excalibur wagged his tailless fanny and Samuel petted him again. "Thanks for the tip, Melba. I hope it pans out. I was worried I wouldn’t have anything to write about this spring."

She laughed; her limpid blue eyes were as calm as the day. "You’re kidding, of course. In this town, something is always going wrong; and so far, you’ve been able to figure a couple of them out. But don’t hold your breath. They won’t all be so easy, and this one’s a good example. It’s pretty clear that we have a chunk of meat here. And if we’re correct that it’s part of a person, then it’s your job is to find out who that person was and how he or she got this way."


*          *         *


The examiner had good news for Samuel that afternoon. The chunk of meat found by Excalibur that morning was, in fact, a piece of a human thigh. But there were conditions set out by the examiner for providing the information. Samuel was given two lists. One was the evidence he could write about; and a much longer list of items, which he was made privy to but couldn’t mention in any article he wrote. The examiner then turned the matter over to the homicide bureau of the San Francisco Police Department.

Samuel’s article came out the next morning with the photograph Marcel Fabreceaux shot of the examiner pointing to the burlap bundle. The lurid headline read: THERE’S A HATCHET MANIAC AMONG US.

There wasn’t much to go on, so Samuel’s work was cut out for him if he wanted to repeat his successful crime resolutions. His big worry was that, maybe this time, the cops would figure it out first.