Suburban postie on America's front line

The route of one deadly letter in New Jersey
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All along Lower Ferry Road in Ewing, New Jersey, the wind is blowing the fallen leaves in each and every direction, filling the kerbsides with deep piles of orange, copper and gold. Debbie Caldwell, in a hurry, crunches through them as she walks back to her van, having just delivered the mail to a large, white clapboard house.

Mrs Caldwell has been a postwoman, or letter-carrier, for two years, but this is not her usual route. The woman who normally covers it, Teresa Heller, is at home recovering from cutaneous anthrax poisoning. When Mrs Caldwell agreed to take over the route, she was not only helping out a colleague but placing herself at the centre of a scare that has killed three people and unsettled America in a rare, all-encompassing way.

"It's her route I am doing. If anyone was going to get it, I would get it," she says good-naturedly as she clambers into the cab of the delivery van. "I am taking Cipro. I have been doing the route since she has been out and there have been no problems. I don't want to come to work and be afraid. You have just got to get on – you cannot let those people win."

Mrs Caldwell's bravado seems genuine enough, but if she had chosen to feel afraid, no one could have blamed her. At least one of three anthrax-infected letters, believed to have been sent by the same person, was sent from here. That one went to NBC television anchor Tom Brokaw, infecting one of his aides.

It feels utterly incongruous to stand in the late October sunshine, gusts of wind unsettling the burnished autumnal blanket at our feet, and talk to Mrs Caldwell about bioterrorism and the threat of deadly bacteria emitting from this quiet, peaceful neighbourhood – with such nice neighbours.Just down the road, only a few minutes ago, Mark Piacentino had been doing some work on his house. He stopped to say how sorry he felt for Mrs Heller, how she always used to wave.

Mrs Caldwell gets the point immediately. "This is a great route," she says, referring to the 250 homes and several large businesses she covers every day, delivering and collecting mail from letterboxes. "People have been asking me how she is doing, whether there is anything they can do for her. They ask if I am all right." She pauses, and then adds: "She is actually doing very well. I'm seeing her for lunch next Tuesday."

Incongruous or not, Ewing is a principal focus point of the investigation being carried out by the FBI and the Postal Inspection Service. Hundreds of agents have been crawling over Mrs Heller's route – speaking to residents, taking samples, hunting for spores, looking for clues. So far, they have come up with nothing.

And yet there are incontrovertible facts. It is known that the three letters passed through the Hamilton sorting office 20 miles away, where two postal workers have been infected. It is known that one of those letters went through this township's tiny depot, having been posted here in Ewing. And since it is thought the three letters were sent by the same person, it is reasonable to believe that the person who sent them either came from this area or made a special journey here to post the deadly package.

Naturally enough, the locals are bemused by all of this. To start with there was the shock; then, the novelty, as the world's media descended on this little-visited community and television satellite vans filled the car park of the sealed-off post office. Locals must buy their stamps from a mobile Postal Service shop.

Now there is a sense of resilience coming through, and a realisation that people can do little but get on with their lives. But things have changed: suspicion fuels suspicion. Raymond Weinnman, another of Mrs Heller's Postal Service colleagues, says that last week he handed in four letters that he thought were suspicious. All four were in the same handwriting, all were addressed to professional sports teams, but all had different return addresses, and none bore the sender's name.

"I just handed them in – I haven't heard back yet from the management yet. I don't know if I will," he says, emptying a postbox on a new, private estate set among the trees. "It's up to the investigators."

Mr Weinnman has a white surgical mask held around his neck on a piece of elastic. He has pushed it around 180 degrees, so that when he is not wearing it, it does not get in his face. As he stoops to collect a letter he has forgotten, the mask bobs gently against the back of his neck.