The drive across southeastern Pennsylvania was energizing. The rain had stopped and it was a bright and sunny day. A lot of people think that the best place to view fall colors in the United States is New England, and they have a point. But the rolling hills of Pennsylvania, painted in scarlet and gold and lemon yellow, might well give New Hampshire a run for its money.
For a long time neither Jessica nor Byrne said much. Both were lost in the events of the past four days and the possibility of a break in the case, a break located far out of their jurisdiction.
Before leaving Philadelphia, Jessica had gotten Byrne to stop at his apartment, shower and shave, change clothes. He looked like two-thirds of his old self again.
They stopped for coffee on the way. When Jessica got back in the car she remembered something she had been meaning to ask her partner. It was about as far removed from the case as she could imagine.
'You didn't happen to find a piece of green yarn in your van, did you?'
'No,' Byrne said. 'Are you talking about the yarn that was around the box with your mom's things in it?'
Jessica nodded. The thought of having lost the yarn made her sick. 'I looked everywhere, asked everyone. It's gone.'
'Maybe it'll turn up.'
Jessica didn't hold out much hope for this. It was only ten cents' worth of yarn, but it had belonged to her mother. And that made it priceless.
The town of Garrett Corners was a notch on the map off 1-80, set among rolling farmland. If you lived here, and you wanted something that could not be obtained at the local general store, hardware store, or pair of diners, there were a few larger towns within thirty or so miles where you could find a Wal-Mart, a Lowe's, or a Bed, Bath & Beyond. Dinner on Saturday night or special occasions was at Max and Erma's or Outback.
The police department of Garrett Corners was three officers strong. In addition to the standard duties involving processing civil matters such as court orders, writs and orders of possession, there were mortgage foreclosures and township auctions. Rarely did they deal with homicide.
The town itself was an intersection, twenty buildings deep in four directions. The municipal building was a featureless block of limestone, housing the police department, courthouse and public agencies. It was every small-town city hall east of the Rockies. Jessica and Byrne were instructed to meet the chief of police, a man named Rogers Logan.
The woman at the desk was in her fifties and had a lacquered, highly complex hairdo, cantilevered to one side. She also had about her an air of small-town bureaucratic efficiency that told Jessica there was no doubt who ran the office, if not the lives, of the three police officers stationed there. Her name was Helen Mott. There was a plate of Halloween-themed cookies on her desk.
Jessica and Byrne announced themselves, showed ID, and took a seat on the worn oak bench across the room. Jessica scanned the walls.
Affixed to them with yellowed tape were mostly outdated posters for D.A.R.E and other community drug and outreach programs. After a few minutes the door to the back opened, and a man walked out.
Rogers Logan was a fit sixty: military flat-top, big hands and farmer's shoulders. He walked with a purposeful gait. Behind him was a young woman in full uniform and Sam Browne.
'I'm Chief Logan,' he said. 'This is Officer Sherri Grace.'
Handshakes all around.
Officer Grace was in her late twenties, stout and surly. She was maybe fifteen pounds over her prom weight, and Jessica knew why. Cop hours and cop food would do it to you if you didn't fight it hard. Jessica waged the battle every day. Still, Officer Grace wore it well.
'Can I get everyone some coffee?' Grace asked.
'Sure,' Byrne said.
'How do you take it?'
'Like it comes.'
Grace winked and left the office.
'Coffee maker's fritzed,' Logan said, hooking a thumb over his shoulder, a sheepish look on his face. He probably figured that in Philadelphia the police department issued espresso machines and milk frothers to every squad. Little did he know. The first thing Jessica noticed when she walked into the office was that they had the same make and model of fax machines.
They retired to the squad room, which amounted to two desks pushed up against each other, a pair of large corkboards on the wall, a conference table pushed into the corner, along with five or six dented file cabinets.
A minute later Officer Grace returned with three cups of coffee in chipped ceramic mugs. The outside temperature had dropped a few degrees, and the mugs billowed with steam. She put the cups down on the desk, then put a cardboard box filled with packets of non-dairy creamer, sugar, Equal, Sweet'N Low and plastic stirrers on the table.
'I'm off to patrol,' she said. 'Nice meeting you all.'
Giving Byrne a little extra wattage in her smile, she left the office.
The coffee rituals came to a close. It was time to get down to business. Logan, the country gentleman, gestured to Jessica to take his chair. Jessica smiled, declined. All three of them stood as Logan described the victim.
'His name was Thomas Archer. Twenty-six years old. Lived over in Kelton, right near the county line. He worked in the beauty salon over there.'
'Where was he found?' Byrne asked.
Logan moved over to a map on the wall, a map of Garrett Corners and surrounding townships. He pointed to a small green area just a short distance from the county line. 'He was found here, in the Shadyside Cemetery. As you can see, the cemetery is on both sides of the creek. Tommy was found on the southern end, near the mausoleum.'
At the word cemetery Jessica and Byrne exchanged a look. All they had really known on the way up to Garrett Corners was what the telex had told them, namely that there was a homicide victim with a possible connection to the Philadelphia murders.
'Who found the body?' Jessica asked.
'Body was found by the mail carrier. He was doing his afternoon route and he noticed a pack of dogs circling something in the cemetery. We've had a few problems with meth labs out here in the past couple of years, and where there's meth labs there're mean dogs. Mail carrier figured they'd gotten loose, called it in, and we went out to check it out. County game warden scooped up two of the dogs, others got away. The dogs had been at Tommy, but not too bad.'
'Where is Mr. Archer now?'
'The body was taken to the coroner's office in the county seat. They do all our autopsies, what few we need done.'
'Do they know how long the body had been there?' Byrne asked.
'Hard to say until they give it a good going-over. Not that long, though.'
'Do you have photographs of the crime scene?'
'Yeah,' Logan said. 'Unfortunately, I do.'
Logan led them to a small area off the squad room, which served as storage space for fax paper, toner, and other supplies. A folded crib leaned in one corner. Logan flipped on the overhead fluorescents.
One wall was dedicated to racks of official forms. The town might have been small, but it rivaled the PPD for forms needed. In the center was a folding conference table. Most of the table's contents were bunched to one side, and a pair of large manila envelopes sat in the middle.
Logan opened the envelopes, slid out the photographs. He arrayed them side by side on the table. The longer shots showed a rural cemetery. The close-ups were of the body. It was a sight with which Jessica and Byrne were all too familiar.
Jessica looked closely at the victim. The signature was identical to the bodies found in Philadelphia. The body was nude, and shaved clean of all hair. The band of paper was wrapped around the head, just barely covering the victim's eyes. There were three bloodstains on the paper, one lateral, one circular, along with the mutilated ear. The body was sprawled on a hillside, surrounded by low headstones. The left leg was clearly broken.
'Does this dovetail with the case you're working?' Logan asked.
'It does,' Byrne said.
'We'll need copies of these photographs, if that's all right,' Jessica said.
Logan retrieved a stack of envelopes from the top of a nearby file cabinet. He picked up two of them. 'I anticipated that. There's duplicates of everything in here.'
He handed the envelopes to Jessica. 'Thanks.'
The three of them went still for a few moments, each of them taking in the horror displayed before them in full color.
'When was your last homicide?' Jessica asked.
Logan ran a hand over his chin. 'Well, even though it's been a few years I find it a little hard to talk about. And mind you, I was in Vietnam. Two tours. Saw quite a bit. This one shook me good.'
Jessica and Byrne remained silent.
'We haven't had but two murders here in all the time I've been on the job. One was a domestic that went tragically wrong. Everyone saw that one coming, I suppose. Those two were at it for years. The other was little Peggy van Tassel.'
'Would you mind telling us the details?' Byrne asked.
Logan sipped his coffee. Jessica noticed a slight shake in his hand. He put the cup down, rattling it slightly on the worn Masonite surface. 'Little girl, eleven years old. Father worked for the county in the water department, mother was a teacher at Jefferson Middle School. Only child. Peggy went to school one day, never came home. We put the word out and by that evening we must have had two hundred volunteers for the search. We found her by Iron Lake ten days later. She'd been molested, stabbed to death. Whoever did it cut her pretty bad.' Logan cleared his throat, reached for his coffee, thought better of it. 'She had on make-up, and a woman's fancy dress. Not a dress that was for a grown woman, mind you, but a small one. One that was her size. The folks at the state crime lab said it looked like it was made for her. State police took the case.'
The idea of the killer making a dress for the little girl gave Jessica a chill. 'Was the case ever closed?' she asked.
Logan shook his head. 'There was a man who was questioned in that case. That man's name was George Archer.'
'Archer?' Byrne asked.
'Yes, sir. Tommy Archer's father. George was a state trooper for a few years, but as I understand it he was shown the door,' Logan added. 'Insubordination was the official line, but there were rumors.'
'Rumors of what?' Jessica asked.
'Like yourselves, I try to deal in facts, ma'am. If it's all the same, rumors should live and die just that. Rumors.'
Jessica nodded. Fair enough.
'Why did the state like George Archer in this case?' Byrne asked. 'George had been seen talking to Peggy a few days before she went missing. In fact, that's where we found Tommy Archer's body. Right near Peggy's marker.'
Jessica looked at Byrne, then back. 'He was found near her plot at the cemetery?'
Logan went through the photos on the table. He picked one up. In it, the body of Thomas Archer was visible on the right side of the frame. To the left was a clearly marked headstone.
MARGARET VAN TASSEL
APRIL 6 1990 - SEPTEMBER 21 2001
'Our Beloved Peggy'
'Do you think any of the girl's family might be involved in this?' Byrne asked.
Logan shrugged. 'I suppose anything's possible. But as I understand it her family were travelers. I think they moved on a long time ago.' Logan sat on the edge of the table. 'A few years later the FBI came around again, questioned George in another case, up round your way. It was a cold case.'
'The case was out of Philadelphia?' Byrne asked.
Logan nodded. 'I believe it was.'
'Do you remember any details about the case?'
'No. It wasn't ours. But I do remember that they also talked to Tommy, who swore that George was with him all during the weekend in question, right up at the house on the farm. I'm not sure that George was there, but that was Tommy's story and he stuck to it.'
'I'd like to take a look at the report on that original homicide,' Byrne said. 'The van Tassel girl. Can you reach out to the state police and have them fax that to us?'
'Consider it done.' Logan glanced at his watch. 'I've got a few things on today. If there's anything else we can do for you, let Helen know and we'll take care of it.'
'We'd like to speak to George Archer,' Byrne said.
'I'll give you directions.' Logan scribbled a few things on a legal pad, tore off the sheet, handed it to Jessica.
'You can't miss the sign,' he added. 'Archer Farms.'
Jessica and Byrne thanked Logan for his time and consideration. On the way to the parking lot Jessica turned, asked the chief one last question.
'What do they grow up there at Archer Farms?'
'Apples, mostly,' Logan said. 'They have about fifty acres of orchards.'