Thursday, October 28
The city's last official potter's field had opened in 1956 in Philadelphia's Northeast. Prior to its opening, the most active potter's field had been in a section now used as a police parking lot at Luzerne Street and Whitaker Avenue, adjoining Philadelphia Municipal Hospital, where it became the final resting place for thousands who died in the 1918 flu epidemic. At various times in the city's history, indigent or unclaimed deceased were buried in a number of places, including Logan Square, Franklin Field, Reyburn Park, even at the corner of 15th and Catharine, just a few blocks from where Jessica had grown up.
These days, in the interest of logistics and expense, many of the unidentified and indigent were being cremated, with remains stored in a room off the morgue at the medical examiner's office.
Jessica and Byrne visited the zoning-archives department of Licenses and Inspections at just after eight a.m. The L & I office was located in the Municipal Services Building at 15th and JFK. What they learned was that there had once been a potter's field located in the Parkwood section of Northeast Philadelphia, a field that had since closed.
They stopped for coffee and got onto 1-95 at just after nine a.m.
The field was located near the intersection of Mechanicsville Road and Dunks Ferry Road at the southern end of Poquessing Valley Park.
On the south side of Dunks Ferry Road were blocks of two-story twin row homes, their fasciae festooned with Halloween decorations ranging from the elaborate (one had a skeleton about to climb down the chimney) to the ordinary (an already dented plastic pumpkin stuck on a gas light).
Jessica and Byrne got out of the car, crossed the road. They walked through the trees into a large open field. Here the ground was rippled - the uneven remnants of graves that had been there a long time.
There were no headstones, no crypts, no vaults, no mausoleum. The field had indeed been closed, the bodies moved or cremated, the area planted over.
Jessica looked at the rutted sod. She considered the generations of kids to come, flying kites, playing kickball, unaware that at one time the ground beneath their feet had held the remnants of the city's homeless, its indigent, its lost.
They walked slowly across the undulating earth, looking for any sign of what had once been there - a buried headstone, a grave marker of any kind, a stake in the ground indicating the boundaries of the cemetery. There was nothing. The earth had long ago begun to reclaim the area with life.
'Was this the only city field in this area?' Jessica asked.
'Yeah,' Byrne said. 'This was it.'
Jessica looked around. Nothing looked promising, at least as it might concern the cases. 'We're wasting our time up here, aren't we?'
Byrne didn't reply. Instead he crouched down, ran his hand over a bare patch of ground. A few moments later he stood, dusted off his hands.
Jessica heard a rustling in the nearby trees. She looked up to see a half-dozen crows perched tenuously on a low branch of a nearby maple. A murder of crows, she had once learned, and had ever since thought how odd a term that was. A flock of geese, a herd of cattle, a murder of crows. Soon another black bird landed, rustling the others, who responded with a series of loud caws and flapping wings. One of them took off and swooped toward the low shrubs at the other side of the field. Jessica followed the pattern of flight.
'Kevin,' she said, pointing to the bird before it landed out of sight. They looked at each other, started across the open field.
Before they got halfway they saw it - the unnatural gleam through the greenery, the bright white surface glinting in the sunlight.
They sprinted the last hundred feet or so and found the body lying in a shallow depression.
The victim was black, male, in his forties or fifties. He was nude, his body shaven head to toe. The ground beneath the corpse was not yet overgrown with grass. It was a former grave.
'Motherfucker,' Byrne yelled.
He stepped through the scene, taking care not to disturb the surrounding area. He put two fingers to the man's neck. 'Jesus Christ,' he said. 'His body's still warm. Let's get everyone and his mother down here. Let's get a K-9 unit.'
Then Byrne gently opened the dead man's hand. There, on the ring finger of his left hand, was the tattoo of a fish.
They both called it in - Byrne contacted the crime-scene unit, Jessica contacted the homicide unit who would then alert the MEO. They spread out to either side of the open field, weapons out. They checked the immediate area, combing the bushes, the scrub, the culverts and ditches, finding nothing.
Later they regrouped at the corner, each lost in their own thoughts. Although they had not immediately located any ID, there was no doubt in either Jessica's or Byrne's mind that the body they'd found - the dead man lying atop a former grave - was that of Tyvander 'Hoochie' Alice.
The tactical team hit the block in six cars, a combination of special- investigation detectives and members of the fugitive squad.
Russ Diaz and his squad fanned out north and east, toward the woods. A K-9 unit showed up a few minutes later. The next car brought Dana Westbrook. For the moment, this relatively quiet corner of Northeast Philadelphia - a place that had one time been a place of repose and solitude - was crawling with law-enforcement personnel.
Ten minutes later the dog and his officer came full circle, back to the parking area near the ball diamonds. It probably meant that the killer had parked there, returned after dumping the body, and then left. If that was so, the trail was cold.
While CSU processed the crime scene, Jessica and Byrne stood at the top of the hill, watching the choreography unfold below.
Detectives would soon canvass the immediate area. There was a condo development at Mechanicsville and Eddington Roads, a pair of apartments next to it. Maybe someone had seen something. But Jessica doubted it. Their killer was a ghost.
Kenneth Beckman, Sharon Beckman, Preston Braswell, Tyvander Alice.
Four bodies, eight tattoos.
Four to go.
And they didn't have a single solid lead.
The team spent the entire afternoon canvassing. The residences in this part of the city were not as tightly packed as they were in the inner city, so the act of interviewing and asking the same questions over and over was a much slower, even more enervating process.
They returned to the Roundhouse, followed up on a few weak leads. Nothing. By the end of the tour, the entire unit was exhausted and frustrated. Someone was solving the unsolved crimes in Philadelphia, but they were killing the killers and their accomplices. Someone was shaving these bodies clean, mutilating their faces, and wrapping them in paper. Someone who floated through the city like a phantom.
Jessica sat on the edge of a desk, a cup of cold coffee in her hand. She glanced over at the walk-in closet. Inside were the books of homicide cases dating back more than a hundred years. Inside the books were summaries of hundreds of unsolved cases, cases wherein there were suspects who were never charged with the crime, suspects who never became defendants, defendants who were acquitted for any number of reasons. The books were essentially a list of potential victims for their ghoul.
The duty room was mostly empty. The second tour had already begun, and those detectives were on the street, pursuing leads, tracking down witnesses. Jessica was envious.
'Don't you have a family to go home to?' Byrne asked.
'Nah,' Jessica said. 'Although, funny you should mention it, I have seen a man and a little girl hanging around my house. I should call the police.'
Byrne laughed. 'Speaking of which, how are you adjusting to the new house?'
'Well, besides tripping over the furniture and spinning in place for five minutes because there's nowhere to put a cup of coffee down, it's great.'
'Is it that much smaller?'
Jessica nodded. 'It's a lot like the house I grew up in. Same layout. The only problem is, I was a lot smaller then.'
'What, like a size four?'
Byrne's phone beeped in his hand. He looked at the screen, read for a moment, smiled.
'It's a text from Colleen,' he said. 'She wanted me to know she got back from D.C. okay.'
Jessica nodded. 'Wow,' she said. 'Colleen in college.'
'Don't remind me.'
Byrne picked up a tall stack of mail that was rubber-banded together on the desk. It looked like two weeks' worth of correspondence, mostly junk. Jessica wanted to mention to her partner that it was probably a good idea to check the inbox once in a while, but she figured he knew this.
As Byrne went through the pile, throwing most of the mail in the trash can, Jessica smelled the perfumed letter before she saw it. The scent was jasmine. Byrne held up the envelope, eyed it, sniffed it. It was the size of a personal note card, maybe four by six inches. Expensive-looking paper.
'A note from an admirer?' Jessica asked. 'As if,' Byrne replied.
'It's the charcoal gray suit, Kevin. I'm telling you.' Byrne pulled a letter opener off the desk, slit the envelope, extracted the card.
As much as Jessica wanted to pry, she stepped a few feet away, giving her partner a little privacy, shoving everything she needed to take with her into her tote bag. When she looked again at Byrne, he was bone pale. Something was wrong.
'What is it?' Jessica asked.
Byrne remained silent.
Byrne waited a few moments, then took Jessica by the arm, led her to the small coffee room, closed the door. He handed her the card. It was printed on a luxurious paper, ivory in color. The scent of jasmine was now much stronger. Jessica put on her glasses, read the note, a brief message written in an elegant hand. The ink was lavender.
My dearest Detective Byrne,
It has been a long time, n'est-ce pas? I wonder how you have fared. Do you think of me? I think of you often. In fact I dreamed of you the other night. It was the first time in years. You looked quite dashing in your dark overcoat and black fedora. You carried an umbrella with a carved ivory handle. Do you carry an umbrella as a rule? No, I would think not.
So tell me. Have you found them yet? The lion and the rooster and the swan? Are there others? You might think they do not play together, but they do. I hope you are well, and that the future brings you every happiness. I am no longer scared.
Jessica was stunned. She read the note a second time, the rich scent filling her head.
'Are you fucking kidding me?' she finally said in a loud whisper. 'The lion and the rooster and the swan?'
Byrne remained silent.
'Who the hell sent this, Kevin? Who is C?'
Byrne turned the envelope over and over in his hands, searching for words. Words were usually his strong suit. He always chose them carefully. He was good at it.
He told her the story.