by David Flynn
“It’s the art of the deal,” Troy said. Sweat darkened his hair. He began gasping, grabbing at his neck, trying desperately to open his tie, to open his shirt.
“Baird, what’s wrong?” his boss asked from the end of the conference table. “Get him a glass of water.”
But the vice-president fell to the carpet and wriggled in pain, clawing, chopping at his throat, turning red then blue. His tongue looked impossibly long, limp out the side of his mouth. The neck was compressed to a point. He was the first.
Second was an old man in a retirement home, fanning himself in the mid-summer heat. His neck cracked, and the head stuck at a weird angle. Third was a young boy in a church, cussing up a storm as blood flew from his mouth, his nose, and his ears.
“All three victims bought ties at the department store,” Detective Ted Diamond said. “End of Summer Sale. Half price.”
The Homicide Squad gathered around the Chief’s desk. None wore neckties. Few in the city dared wear neckties anymore.
“But the fourth wore one from his own closet.”
The fourth was the mayor himself. On television news the previous night, hundreds of thousands watched the thin, disciplined man, nervous below the lights, begin to choke and sputter. The neck constricted to a small point. Blood all over his face, then something like phlegm flooding his lips. He twitched and jerked, as the camera watched closely. The city had seen him die over and over again since.
“Lab says the ties turn into a hard plastic that contracts. Set off by sweat. Something called a plasticizer,” the Chief announced. “Weird, huh?”
The detectives smiled. This case was interesting.
Next day: The red-haired man was covered with freckles. He was so old it was hard for the woman to say how old he was. She was scared. He glared at her across the bus, his rheumy old eyes bulging out of their sockets. She looked down at the dirty floor.
“You’re damn right,” he said, in a creaky, old voice. “I’m the one.”
She got off at her stop and called the police.
“Name is John South,” Detective Diamond told the reporters in his office. “Former owner of South’s Chemical Supplies. 82 years old. Only son killed two months ago in a robbery. Wife died a year ago and sued the hospital for malpractice. Former company burned down three months ago, arson suspected. Pissed off, I’d say.”
“Any history of mental problems?” a reporter asked.
“Naw. Just old,” Diamond said.
South’s picture was all over TV and the papers nationwide by dinner. Blazing red hair, sickly skin covered with freckles, bulging balls of faded blue eyes. A monster. Just another dying man before this.
A girl, age 11, was next; then an old woman. Both on the same day. Woman’s Day the press called it. Murdered by scarves. The city was scared, almost everybody carried a gun or knife, legal or not. Children and the elderly didn’t go out, missed school or grocery shopping. Businesses complained. Clip-on ties, a TV ad for a men’s shop suggested, but mostly even formal occasions meant collar-open.
A woman was shrieking in the lobby of the police station when Detective Diamond came to work. “A red-haired old man, name, age, and everything known, and you can’t catch him in two weeks!” Diamond took a side door. His own dour face, long and surrounded by curly light brown hair, had become familiar on tabloid covers and TV talk shows. The Chief insisted he take the heat.
“I’m going to die,” the mother had screamed, “and so’s my baby.”
A letter was waiting for Diamond in the usual pile, which consisted mostly of threats and sneers those days. The letter was handwritten, in an elementary-schoolboy’s scrawl. It was signed “South.”
“A plague, a vast plague that will bring death and destruction on this evil city has been let loose by me, but I am just the agent. I invented the liquid that causes neckties and anything I want to kill the corrupt citizens of this mound of ants. Thousands of garments are in place to kill the wicked. Here is what I hate:
- Rude people
- People who don’t care
- People who are incompetent
- The violent
- The self-centered
- Those who don’t care about the past
- The overcrowded
- Those who lack family
- Those who are ignorant but act anyway
- People on television
- Politicians who use negative advertising
- The unpatriotic
- Radical feminists who are anti-love
- Black separatists
- Corrupt children old before their time
- Cynical police who think it’s us against them
I could go on forever. I hate this city. My life has become a garbage dump of the city’s trash. The world is corrupt and needs cleaning up. I am the one to do it. Nobody will live. The order is random, but in the end everybody will be dead. Wait for secret weapon number two.”
“Great,” the Chief moaned. “Keep that from the public, for God’s sake.”
Mailed copies were being read at that moment by every newspaper, television and radio station in a hundred mile-circle. Mass panic and international press attention, of course, but worse was coming. Diamond felt besieged by reporters and concerned parents.
In a car rental agency Johnnie Treveck waited on a customer. His white shirt was open. He wiped the sweat from his forehead.
“You’ll want insurance,” he said, grim as many people were those days. “Sign on the bottom line.”
The customer scribbled her name and looked up. Treveck had disappeared. A moan and then a scream came from the floor. When she and the other employees gathered round the body he was kicking the floor, writhing, and holding his chest in agony.
“Squeezing! Help!” was all he could say.
The horror of that sight. Treveck’s shirt grew smaller and smaller. Bones began to crack. Blood and bile began seeping then spurting from his torso. He screamed and screamed. One brave soul tried desperately to unbutton the shirt, but it wouldn’t budge. The cloth felt like steel, and was shrinking. When the chemical stopped at last, the shirt was the size of a boy’s, and Treveck was dead. His insides were out. The crowd could see his dead heart.
Now everyone went insane. Reports of women dying from blouses, from skirts, from pantyhose. Men’s underwear, men’s pants, everything became killers. In two days the count of South’s revenge reached 28. Again, a few targeted cases seemed to be old clothes kept in a closet. Among these was the anchor of the local TV news, on the air, under the intense lights.
Diamond dreaded going to work. “Idiot” was the best he had been called the last few weeks. The entire police force with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and every other unit was out looking for this old, red-haired man, and sightings came in by the hundreds every day. So far, nothing.
So that when, in the midst of a chaos of media, politicians, and citizen demands a break finally came, the homicide detective jumped on it with a joy like Christmas.
On a farm about fifty miles from the city, a chemical setup had been found. The farmer had rented a couple of old sharecropper houses. At first the farmer hadn’t paid any attention to the news. When he finally heard, he figured revenge on the city was a good idea.
But in the spare bedroom rented to a black-haired old man — ”They all look alike to me,” the farmer said — was a simple contraption with a plastic bucket or two, some tubing, what turned out to be a centrifuge, and a couple of Bunsen burners.
Nothing, in fact, that any high school kid couldn’t set up for $50 in his attic. A chemical residue in the bucket was analyzed. It was the same plasticizer in the clothes. The old man, however, had disappeared.
“I didn’t see him more than two or three times,” his next door neighbor and fellow elderly renter said. “Leave me alone.” But a wall of reporters surrounded his house.
Detective Diamond left for the rural district as the death toll reached 52. Nudity was the only answer, the comics said on TV.
Another letter mailed to a hundred newspapers, magazines and television stations arrived from South: “I am the end of the world,” he wrote in jagged handwriting. “What I have done to this city has just begun, and what I am doing to this city soon will be done to all cities.”
The man was getting messianic. A bad sign, the psychologists said. The envelopes were postmarked from the town closest to the farm.
Here’s what else I don’t like, the note continued:
- Rude people
- People who don’t know the name of their U.S. representative
- People who eat only junk food
- Girls in elementary school who wear make-up
- Evangelical Christians driving Buicks
- Talk show hosts and people who watch them
- Cookies where the bag stays the same size but the number of cookies gets less and less
- Tobacco growers, sellers, producers and users
- Aristocrats whose mother or father was a dentist or in insurance sales.
- Politicians who wear flannel shirts in advertisements
And a thousand more. Wait until the next letter.
Detective Diamond set up a police command center in the small town near the farm. The center was a crummy room in the one crummy local motel, which wasn’t even a franchise. The bed was removed, over the owner’s protest, and a metal desk and file cabinet stuck in. Add radios, a typewriter, and that was all he was given. Diamond felt stuck to the side.
Two days later a man walked through the screen door, old and red-haired. His eyes gave him away. The eyes of the hundreds of old, red-haired men he’d interviewed had been docile, mucusy, and removed. These faded blue eyes were insane, so intense Diamond had trouble looking into them. The eyeballs drilled at him like a cadaver’s. The rest of South’s face was stretched into a grin that was a threat of death.
“Mr. South,” Diamond said. The mass killer drew a pistol on him, one so cheap it looked like a fake in a movie. Bought on the street.
South sat down across from him. He wore blue jeans way too big and baggy, splattered with mud. His shirt was ripped and torn. A “Caterpillar” cap held tight to his skull.
“Now shut up. This is a suicide,” the old man announced. “Police going to get me today. Some announcements. Turn on that tape recorder.”
Diamond did, his professional mind going a mile a minute. An old man and only that gun. Could he jump him? Could he let his partner, cruising the county in a car with a radio, know? A coldness came over him. As long as he didn’t look that man in the eye.
“I mailed my last testament this morning. Tell them why I hate this Earth. Also mailed my formula that’s been killing people to every magazine, every nutty group, every criminal in the world I read about. Arabs, communists, gangs. I am the end of the world. Just remember that.”
“I understand you had many wrongs against you,” Diamond said, beginning the sympathy technique.
“Shut up. This too: Last night I was in the city. Easier’n hell to do. Poured a bunch of my stuff, the last I made, into the water supply. Hundreds, thousands going to die.”
“Including the innocent,” Diamond tried. Keep him talking; keep him distracted. His hand moved as slowly as it could toward the Transmit button of the walkie-talkie between them on the desk.
“No such thing. You’re going to die in five minutes. Call your partner on that radio, for all I care. I give a damn. Mailed my last testament. And this too: Been traveling to other cities. Hell, this is the end of the entire world. The squeezing is going on in other countries. Hope they all die. Leave the cockroaches in peace.”
“God made a mistake. Too much talk. Turn that air conditioner off. This is a suicide. And here. You got to wear one of these too, or I’ll shoot you.”
The old loony stood up, and backed to the thermostat, silver pistol still pointing Diamond’s way. He turned off the cool air, and the little box of a room, door closed and locked, turned hot and stagnant.
“You heard: put on this cap.” He held it out, a “Caterpillar” like one he wore on his skull, except that it was clean.
Diamond grabbed the radio without any pretense. “Charlie Two Night, this is Charlie One Night. Lou get back to headquarters quick. South is here. He’s locked the door and he’s going to kill me.”
South laughed. Diamond’s voice wasn’t even halfway professional. The old man yanked out the telephone cord, feebly, and sat back down again in the orange vinyl chair.
“I shoot you now, and you’re dead. Or you put this damn cap on, and you’ve got a few minutes to play with. I don’t give a damn. Don’t even have a conscience anymore. Bunch of crap, a conscience. You got three seconds.”
The avenger slapped the cap on the desk between them. Diamond stuck it on his head like a snake. The cap was way too big.
“Ted, I’m on the way. Calling in all the backup I can get.”
“Radio silence, Charlie Two. He’s listening right here.”
“We sit tight until the sweat starts to pour. Pretty rich, huh?”
Diamond felt beads forming already.
“Where you been hiding?”
“Always hated movies when the bad guy talked until he got caught. I am the bad guy. Now shut up. I hate those movies. Just die.”
The room felt hotter and hotter, thicker and thicker. Detective Diamond tried to stay cool, but mid-July in a closed room the cap twitched. Sweat started to drip from his forehead.
“Yep. Get life over with. I am the end of the modern world.”
Tires crunched in the gravel. Voices shouted outside. The motel room would have more firepower pointed at it than some small countries. South grimaced. He laughed, but it was also a scream.
The homicide cop whipped off his cap. A bullet grazed him on the cheek.
The old man fell to the orange rug, and there he writhed. His head exploded. Blood and brains splattered on the side of the desk. Diamond’s cap twisted like it was alive. He watched it, mesmerized, until it was the size of an orange.
Copyright © 2014 by David Flynn