The Candidate

Henry Slesar

"A man's worth can be judged by the caliber of his enemies." Burton Grunzer, encountering the phrase in a pocket-sized biography he had purchased at a newsstand, put the book in his lap and stared reflectively from the murky window of the commuter train. Darkness silvered the glass and gave him nothing to look at but his own image, but it seemed appropriate to his line of thought. How many people were enemies of that face, of the eyes narrowed by a myopic squint denied by vanity that correction of spectacles, of the nose he secretly called partrician, of the mouth that was soft in relaxation and hard when animated by speech or smiles or frowns? How many enemies? Grunzer mused. A few he could name, others he could guess. But it was their caliber that was important. Men like Whitman Hayes, for instance, there was a twenty-four-carat opponent for you. Grunzer smiled, darting a sidelong glance at the seat-sharer beside him, not wanting to be caught indulging in a secret thought. Grunzer was thirty-four; Hayes was twice as old, his white hairs synonymous with experience, an enemy to be proud of. Hayes knew the food business, all right, knew it from every angle: he'd been a wagon jobber for six years, a broker for ten, a food-company executive for twenty before the old man had brought him into the organization to sit on his right hand. Pinning Hayes to the mat wasn't easy, and that made Grunzer's small but increasing triumphs all the sweeter. He congratulated himself. He had twisted Hayes' advantages into drawbacks, had made his long years seem tantamount to senility and outlived usefulness; in meetings, he had concentrated his questions on the new supermarket and suburbia phenomena to demonstrate to the old man that times had changed, that the past was dead, that new merchandising tactics were needed, and that only a younger man could supply them....
Suddenly, he was depressed. His enjoyment of remembered victories seemed tasteless. Yes, he'd won a minor battle or two in the company conference room; he'd made Hayes' ruddy face go crimson, and seen the old man's parchment skin wrinkle in a sly grin. But what had been accomplished? Hayes seemed more self-assured than ever, and the old man more dependent upon his advice....
When he arrived home, later than usual, his wife, Jean, didn't ask questions. After eight years of a marriage in which, childless, she knew her husband almost too well, she wisely offered nothing more than a quiet greeting, a hot meal, and the day's mail. Grunzer flipped through the bills and circulars, and found an unmarked letter. He slipped it into his hip pocket, reserving it for private perusal, and finished the meal in silence.
After dinner, Jean suggested a movie and he agreed; he had a passion for violent action movies. But first, he locked himself in the bathroom and opened the letter. Its heading was cryptic: Society for United Action. The return address was a post-office box. It read:


Dear Mr. Grunzer:

Your name has been suggested to us by a mutual acquaintance. Our organization has an unusual mission which cannot be described in this letter, but which you may find of exceeding interest. We would be gratified by a private discussion at your earliest convenience. If I do not hear from you to the contrary in the next few days, I will take the liberty of calling you at your office.


It was signed, Carl Tucker, Secretary. A thin line at the bottom of the page read: A Non-Profit Organization.

His first reaction was a defensive one; he suspected an oblique attack on his pocketbook. His second was curiosity: he went to the bedroom and located the telephone directory, but found no organization listed by the letterhead name. Okay, Mr.. Tucker, he though wryly, I'll bite.

When no call came in the next three days, his curiosity was increased. But when Friday arrived, he forgot the letter's promise in the crush of office affairs. The old man called a meeting with the bakery-products division. Grunzer sat opposite Whitman Hayes at the conference table, poised to pounce on fallacies in his statements. He almost had him once, but Eckhardt, the bakery-products manager, spoke up in defense of Hayes' views. Eckhardt had only been with the company a year, but he had evidently chosen sides already. Grunzer glared at him, and reserved a place for Eckhardt in the hate chamber of his mind.
At three o'clock, Carl Tucker called.
"Mr. Grunzer?" The voice was friendly, even cheery. "I haven't heard from you, so I assume you don't mind me calling today. Is there a chance we can get together sometime?"
"Well, if you could give me some idea, Mr. Tucker-"
The chuckle was resonant. "We're not a charity organization, Mr. Grunzer, in case you got that notion. Nor do we sell anything. We’re more or less a voluntary-service group: our membership is over a thousand at present."
"To tell you the truth," Grunzer frowned, "I never heard of you."
"No, you haven't, and that's one of the assets. I think you'll understand when I tell you about us. I can be over at your office in fifteen minutes, unless you want to make it another day."
Grunzer glanced at his calendar. "Okay, Mr. Tucker. Best time for me is right now."
"Fine! I'll be right over."
Tucker was prompt. When he walked into the office, Grunzer's eyes went dismayed at the officious briefcase in the man's right hand. But he felt better when Tucker, a florid man in his early sixties with small, pleasant features, began talking.
"Nice of you to take the time, Mr. Grunzer. And believe me, I'm not here to sell you insurance or razor blades. Couldn't if I tried; I'm a semiretired broker. However, the subject I want to discuss is rather-intimate, so I'll have to ask you to bear with me on a certain point. May I close the door?"
"Sure," Grunzer said, mystified.
Tucker close it, hitched his chair closer, and said, "The point is this. What I have to say must remain in the strictest confidence. If you betray that confidence, if you publicize our society in any way, the consequences could be most unpleasant. Is that agreeable?"
Grunzer, frowning, nodded.
"Fine!" The visitor snapped open the briefcase and produced a stapled manuscript. "Now, the society has prepared this little spiel about our basic philosophy, but I'm not going to bore you with it. I'm going to go straight to the heart of our argument. You may not agree with our first principle at all, and I'd like to know that now."
"How do you mean, first principle?"
"Well..." Tucker flushed slightly. "Put in the crudest form, Mr. Grunzer, the Society for United Action believes that-some people are just not fit to live." He looked up quickly, as if anxious to gauge the immediate reaction. "There, I've said it." He laughed, somewhat in relief. "Some of our members don't believe in my direct approach; they feel the argument has to be broached more discreetly. But frankly, I've gotten excellent results in this rather crude manner. How do you feel about what I've said, Mr. Grunzer?"
"I don't know. Guess I never thought about it much."
"Were you in the war, Mr. Grunzer?"
"Yes. Navy." Grunzer rubbed his jaw. "I suppose I didn't think the Japs were fit to live, back then. I guess maybe there are other cases. I mean, you take capital punishment, I believe in that. Murderers, rape-artists, perverts, hell, I certainly don't think they're fit to live."
"Ah," Tucker said. "So you really accept our first principle. It's a question of category, isn't it?"
"I guess you could say that."
"Good. So now I'll try another blunt question. Have you-personally-every wished someone dead? Oh, I don't mean those casual, fleeting wishes everybody has. I mean a real, deep-down, uncomplicated wish for the death of someone you thought was unfit to live. Have you?"
"Sure." Grunzer said frankly. "I guess I have."
"There are times, in your opinion, when the removal of someone from this earth would be beneficial?"
Grunzer smiled. "Hey, what is this? You from Murder, Incorporated, or something?"
Tucker grinned back. "Hardly, Mr. Grunzer, hardly. There is absolutely no criminal aspect to our aims or our methods. I'll admit we're a 'secret' society, but we're no Black Hand. You're be amazed at the quality of our membership; it even includes members of the legal profession. But suppose I tell you how the society came into being?
"It began with two men; I can't reveal their names just now. The year was 1949, and one of these men was a lawyer attached to the district attorney's office. The other man was a state psychiatrist. Both of them were involved in a rather sensational trial, concerning a man accused of a hideous crime against two small boys. In their opinion, the man was unquestionably guilty, but an unusual persuasive defense counsel, and a highly suggestible jury, gave him his freedom. When the shocking verdict was announced, these two, who were personal friends as well as colleagues, were thunderstruck and furious. They felt a great wrong had been committed, and they were helpless to right it...
"But I should explain something about this psychiatrist. For some years, he had made studies in a field which might be called anthropological psychiatry. One of these researches related to the voodoo practice of certain groups, the Haitian in particular. You've probably heard a great deal about voodoo, or obeah as they call it in Jamaica, but I won't dwell on the subject lest you think we hold tribal rites and stick pins in dolls...But the chief feature of this study was the uncanny success of certain strange practices. Naturally, as a scientist, he rejected the supernatural explanation and sought the rational one. And of course, there was only one answer. When the vodun priest decreed the punishment or death of a malefactor, it was the malefactor's own convictions concerning the efficacy of the death wish, his own faith in the voodoo power, that eventually made the wish come true. Sometimes, the process was organic-his body reacted psychosomatically to the voodoo curse, and he would sicken and die. Sometimes, he would die by 'accident'-an accident prompted by the secret belief that once cursed, he must die. Eerie, isn't it?"
"No doubt," Grunzer said dry-lipped.
"Anyway, our friend, the psychiatrist, began wondering aloud if any one of us have advanced so far along the civilized path that we couldn't be subject to this same sort of 'suggested' punishment. He proposed that they experiment on this choice subject, just to see.
"How they did it was simple," he said. "They went to see this man, and they announced their intentions. They told him they were going to wish him dead. They explained how and why the wish would become reality, and while he laughed at their proposal, they could see the look of superstitious fear cross his face. They promised him that regularly, ever day, they would be wishing for his death, until he could no longer stop the mystic juggernaut that would make the wish true."
Grunzer shivered suddenly and clenched his fist. "That's pretty silly," he said softly.
"The man died of a heart attack two months later."
"Of course. I knew you'd say that. But there's such a thing as coincidence."
"Naturally. And our friends, while intrigued, weren't satisfied. So they tried it again."
"Yes, again. I won't recount who the victim was, but I will tell you that this time they enlisted the aid of four associates. This little band of pioneers was the nucleus of the society I represent today."
Grunzer shook his head. "And you mean to tell me there's a thousand now?"
"Yes, a thousand and more, all over the country. A society whose one function is to wish people dead. At first, membership was purely voluntary, but now we have a system. Each new member of the Society for United Action joins on the basis of submitting one potential victim. Naturally, the society investigates to determine whether the victim is deserving of his fate. If the case is a good one, the entire membership then sets about to wish him dead. Once the task has been accomplished, naturally, the new member must take part in all future concerted action. That and a small yearly fee, is the price of membership."
Carl Tucker grinned.
"And in case you think I'm not serious, Mr. Grunzer-" He dipped into the briefcase again, this time producing a blue-bound volume of telephone-directory thickness. "Here are the facts. To date, two hundred and twenty-nine victims were named by our selection committee. Of those, one hundred and four are no longer alive. Coincidence, Mr. Grunzer?
"As for the remaining one hundred and twenty-five-perhaps that indicates that our method is not infallible. We're the first to admit that. But new techniques are being developed all the time. I assure you, Mr. Grunzer, we will get them all."
He flipped through the blue-bound book.
"Our members are listed in this book, Mr. Grunzer. I'm going to give you the option to call one, ten or a hundred of them. Call them and see if I'm not telling the truth."
He flipped the manuscript towards Grunzer's desk. It landed on the blotter with a thud. Grunzer picked it up.
"Well?" Tucker said. "Want to call them?"
"No." He licked his lips. "I'm willing to take your word for it, Mr. Tucker. It's incredible, but I can see how it works. Just knowing that a thousand people are wishing you dead is enough to shake the hell out of you." His eyes narrowed. "But there's one question. You talked about a 'small' fee-"
"It's fifty dollars, Mr. Grunzer."
"Fifty, huh? Fifty times a thousand, that's pretty good money, isn't it?"
"I assure you, the organization is not motivated by profit. Not the kind you mean. The dues merely cover expenses, committee work, research, and the like. Surely you can understand that?"
"I guess so," he grunted.
"Then you find it interesting?"
Grunzer swiveled his chair about to face the window.
God! he though.
God, if it really worked!
But how could it? If wishes became deeds, he would have slaughtered dozens in his lifetime. Yet, that was different. His wishes were always secret things, hidden where no man could know them. But this method was different, more practical, more terrifying. Yes, he could see how it might work. He could visualize a thousand minds, burning with the single wish of death, see the victim sneering in disbelief at first, and then slowly, gradually, surely succumbing to the tightening, constricting chain of fear that it might work, that so many deadly thoughts could indeed emit a mystical, malevolent ray that destroyed life.
Suddenly, ghostlike, he saw the ruddy face of Whitman Hayes before him.
He wheeled about and said, "But the victim has to know all this, of course? He has to know the society exists, and has succeeded, and is wishing for his death? That's essential, isn't it?"
"Absolutely essential," Tucker said, replacing the manuscripts in his briefcase. "You've touched on the vital point, Mr. Grunzer. The victim must be informed, and that, precisely is what I have done." He looked at his watch. "You death wish began at noon today. The society has begun to work. I'm very sorry."
At the doorway, he turned and lifted both hat and briefcase in one departing salute.
"Good-bye, Mr. Grunzer," he said.