The Four Thumbtacks
THE FOUR THUMBTACKS
It was raining that morning, an early spring rain that was washing away some of the lingering snow cover on the hills of western Vermont. Roads were wet and treacherous with melted snow and ice flowing across the asphalt.
Several motor vehicle accidents occurred in the region, fewer than had come with the last snowstorm but enough to make work for the Vermont State Police’s Field Force. Uniformed troopers in their green cruisers responded to a dozen calls on that last Sunday in March of 1985.
There was one fatality among the collisions. The deadly incident was on Highway 7 between Shelburne and Burlington shortly after ten in the morning.
A northbound car, a dark blue sedan, skidded on a bend in the roadway, crossing the median as witnessed by a driver heading south in his red coupe. The coupe was a safe distance from the sedan as it struck the guardrail so hard that instead of stopping, it flipped over and tumbled into a rocky field. The car rolled over four times, throwing the driver clear of the ultimate wreckage. But he was killed when his head struck one of the large rocks protruding from the soil.
A suitcase was the second-largest thing to come flying out of the blue sedan.
The other driver pulled over at the guardrail, just short of the section battered from the impact and switched on his hazard lights. The man was a commercial truck driver between assignments; he had some first aid training and did not hesitate to climb over the rail to reach the accident site.
Slowing his pace across the field to avoid slipping and falling, the trucker’s adrenalin level dropped as he reached the man lying face-down in a rock cluster. The trucker observed the man was tall and lanky, dressed in a pair of work boots, dark slacks, and a denim jacket over a pale blue shirt.
The trucker crouched by the man’s outstretched right arm and fingered the wrist. There was not even a faint throb to be felt. He tried again, reaching over to touch the victim’s carotid artery but again felt no evidence of a beating heart.
Standing up slowly, the trucker looked from the dead man over to the steaming wreck several yards away. He turned and walked back to the highway.
A second car heading north stopped on the shoulder across from the coupe as the trucker climbed back over the guardrail. The new arrival, a middle-aged housewife on her way to visit her mother in Burlington, rolled down her window. She gave a shout across the road through the raindrops to ask what had happened.
“Some guy went off the road and got killed!”
“You sure he’s dead?”
“Oh, my God!”
“There’s a gas station about three miles up the way you’re headed. Would you mind calling 911 from there? I think I should kinda watch over things here.”
“Don’t drive too fast. Ambulance can’t save the guy now.”
Over the next two hours, the rain stopped as the clouds broke up over the state and drifted east towards the ocean. During that time, two Field Force cruisers and a paramedic unit arrived at the crash site. The trucker gave his statement to one of the troopers while the other uniformed officer and a plainclothes detective accompanied the paramedic team to the sedan and its driver.
The paramedics agreed with the witness about this being a dead body although it would take a medical doctor to pronounce the obvious later on at the hospital. The detective looked for anything to identify the driver but found nothing on the man’s person with a name on it. With a shrug, he let the paramedics load their stretcher with the remains.
He dismissed the trucker a few minutes later and, before the tow truck arrived, joined the troopers in gathering up the debris from the car, including the suitcase, a large pearl-gray Samsonite that hadn’t burst open when it landed. One of the few useful things the detective found in the dead man’s pockets was the key to the suitcase lock. He wouldn’t open the suitcase until it was in the Williston State Police barracks.
The detective’s name was Ron Quinn. His Lieutenant, Alex Morris, met Quinn in a conference room after the detective had been able to go through the contents of the suitcase along with the other debris from the site. A large table was covered with articles of clothing, a newspaper, a near-empty pack of cigarettes, a book of matches from a motel several miles south on the same highway, a pair of ball point pens, some loose change, and a black three ring binder.
Although the personal effects failed to identify the deceased, there was an order for fingerprints to be taken at the morgue.
Morris was a burly man in his late forties. Quinn was young enough to be the lieutenant’s son and they shared a certain physical resemblance even without any family connection. Morris saw himself as Quinn’s mentor, the young detective having been promoted from the Field Force only five months earlier.
“Nothing here with a name on it?” Morris asked, waving his right hand at the display on the table.
“There’s a wallet,” Quinn said, picking up a dark brown leather billfold, his hand covered by a latex glove, “but there’s nothing in it except $112 cash.”
“Ordinary stuff,” Quinn added, dropping the wallet, “except for this.”
He picked up the three-ring binder and opened the thing, holding it up so that Morris could see what was there. A white coated cardboard sheet had been three-hole punched to fit the ring clasps. Four small photographs were tacked onto the cardboard, two above and two below.
Morris stepped closer for a better look. The four photos were all roughly head and shoulders portraits with the same plank-wall backdrop. They were old-style black and white snapshots, printed with white borders around them. All had the same date stamped on the bottom border: AUG • 60, indicating when they’d been developed. The two photos on the left were both tacked to the cardboard through the upper margin; the photos on the right were tacked through the photo images themselves, piercing the portrait faces.
“Jeez,” Morris said. “Must’ve hated the two on the right.”
Quinn set the binder down, lying open and flat on the table. He started to pry loose the tack through the upper right-hand photo and then looked over at Morris. The lieutenant nodded.
A moment later, all four snapshots were un-tacked and Morris had put on his own pair of latex gloves. He held each up in turn for a closer look.
“They all look so young,” Morris commented. “Teenagers, I bet.”
“None of them look like our dead man. But maybe he knew them; he looks like he was old enough to have been a teen himself when these pictures were taken.”
The defaced pair from the right side were a boy and a girl, both blond, and dressed in what appeared to be summer wear. There were holes in their foreheads from the tacks. The left side pictures were of another boy and girl, also in summer clothes. The boy was the only one not smiling and he seemed to have light brown hair as hinted by the monochrome film. The girl had darker hair and eyes that made Morris linger over her portrait.
“This dark girl with the long nose,” the lieutenant said, “she looks sort of familiar but I can’t quite place her.”
“Well, these photos are a little before my time, sir,” Quinn remarked. “But if these are all Vermont kids, then maybe… How old were you in 1960, Lieutenant?”