Chain Letter Inc. by Jean Graham [horror]

Chain Letter Inc. by Jean Graham

Know anyone who’s died lately?

Odds are the deceased received our letter. Odds are they also broke the chain.

You know the letter. Yes, that one. With all the charm of a draft notice, it cheerfully informs you that “This letter brings good luck. It’s been around the world (fill in any number you like) times. Copy and send it to ten others within one month, and in two months your good luck will arrive. Do not break this chain under any circumstances! George Berkins of Podunk, Ohio threw his letter away and was hit by a semi two days later. Allison Crowley broke the chain and was dead of liver cancer within six months.”

And so on.

No one knows who started it. But I can certainly tell you who kept it crisscrossing the planet for well over forty years. He was president, founder, and CEO of Good Luck Enterprises (a division of Houghton Industries), in the person of Malcom Theodosius Houghton III.

My Uncle Mal.

I’d spent three years as a junior exec in Houghton PR, but on the day he called me into his office to bestow my “promotion” to Good Luck’s presidency, I had no clue what the hell GL division did.

So I asked him.

“The letter, Martin,” he’d rumbled from behind his mausoleum of a marble desk. “GL division administrates the letter.”

Of course, when he showed me a copy of the damned thing, I reacted the way any supposedly sane person would.

“A chain letter? You created an entire company just to perpetuate a chain letter?

He laughed at me. Uncle Mal’s laugh could be described in many ways, “pleasant” not among them.

“Take a look,” he said, and like something out of a bad spy movie, the wall panels behind him slid apart to unveil the biggest honking flow chart I’d ever seen. It ran all over the wall, filled with dozens of company names branching off from Houghton’s thirteen divisions. I’d never heard of most of them, and the ones I did recognize had been defunct for years. So why were they up there?

“Acquisitions, Martin,” Uncle Mal sneered, apparently irked at my blank expression. “A corporation grows by either acquiring—or annihilating—the competition.”

Apparently, I still looked clueless, so he prodded me.

“You remember Walter F. Lenzinger?”

“Lenzinger,” I echoed, trying not to look as stupid as I felt and without a doubt failing miserably. “Wasn’t he the Ziptron exec who drowned in the Bahamas last year?”

“Precisely.” For the first time, Uncle Mal looked impressed, though his condescending tone remained intact. He touched something that made Ziptron’s box light up on the wall, becoming a red-limned rectangle with a glowing line that zigzagged down to one of Houghton’s tech divisions. “Lenzinger turned down thirty-two separate buyout offers before we sent him the letter. He ignored it, of course. So we sent three more, just for good measure. Two weeks after receiving the last one, he left for a vacation in the Bahamas.” Ziptron’s box went abruptly dead. Another one, Cube Mart’s, lit up, outlined in blue. It had no line running into the Houghton divisions. “Cube Mart’s CEO tried a hostile takeover of our retail stores a year ago last June. She got the letter in August, September, and October—and died of an aneurism in November. Cube Mart liquidated all assets five months later.”

It went on like that for the better part of half an hour, a litany of competitors who’d supposedly died after breaking the chain, their companies either bankrupted or swallowed up by the Houghton Corporation juggernaut. In the end, I had no idea what to say in the face of such flat-out lunacy. So I said yes, Uncle Mal, thank you very much, I’d be pleased to accept the presidency of Good Luck Enterprises.

Hey, I may not have been the brightest bulb in the lamp factory, but I was no fool. If Uncle Mal wanted to pay me six figures to crank out supposedly lethal chain letters, well, crank them out I would. And did. By the thousands.

Of course, only six or eight letters a year were actually directed to competitors Uncle Mal wished to “acquire or annihilate.” Invariably, his wishes prevailed with a few of them, and nearly always due to the unexpected death of a CEO.

Coincidence?

No one could ever convince Uncle Mal of that. He knew they’d broken the chain—and died as a result. And what about the ones who didn’t die? Well, obviously, those had passed the letter on.

And on. And on. And on.

Hence, my job security. It keeps coming back, you see. By the box load.

Uncle Mal, whose ego is at least twice as big as his fortune, never made any secret of Houghton’s involvement in the chain. Every letter we generate goes out on company letterhead, in a logo-imprinted envelope that proudly proclaims Good Luck Enterprises to be one of our divisions.

So of course it comes back. Sometimes they’re our original letters, stamped “Refused, Return to Sender,” or “Moved, Not Forwardable.” Most often, though, the thing returns by sheer vengeance, dutifully photocopied onto cheap twenty-pound bond and sent back to Good Luck with the implicit nose-thumbing intact. And yes, we open every one, reproduce it tenfold and send it on its merry way again.

Uncle Mal insists.

Laughable? Well, on the surface of it, yes. I know how it looks. And I know the numbers. By sheer geometric progression, the letter would have buried the entire globe in paper by now if thousands hadn’t broken the chain. Did all of those die? No. But some probably did. And Uncle Mal, of course, was adamant about never taking the risk of breaking the chain on his end. Ever.

So, Good Luck Enterprises stays in business, and I stay gainfully employed for life—by generating death.

Yes, death. You think I don’t believe the letter works? Well, I do, because it does—even though not everyone who broke the chain dropped dead on the spot. Enough of them did. Especially if Uncle Mal wanted them to. Look at it as an updated version of the old doll with pins bit, except that here, the magic works on those who don’t believe as well as on those who do.

And yes, the obvious did have to occur to me sooner or later. I’m Uncle Mal’s only relative and sole heir to his vast fortune, after all. Begs the question, doesn’t it? Why, after abusing me for years, would he drop the power over his own life or death into my hands?

You’re not going to believe the answer to that one.

“We’re just the messengers, Martin,” he announced after calling me up to his office one morning. “We’re not the reason it works. They are.”

I stared at him from the intimidating little chair opposite his slab of a desk. “They who?” I demanded, not bothering to hide my exasperation. He’d been making less and less sense lately, as though every last one of those forty-two years spent overseeing the letter’s production had finally crawled in and addled his brain.

He folded his hands like a preacher about to deliver the doxology. “Death is a business, nephew. Just like any other. It has agents, messengers, even a CEO. And our letter? That’s the summons.”

“Summons,” I repeated, apparently fated to echo his cryptic ramblings until he’d seen fit to explain them, to his own satisfaction if not entirely to mine.

“Not all of ‘em work,” he said, which was, of course, exactly what I’d been pointing out for years. “Some are what you might call a warning. And the rest… Well, when it’s the real deal, they send along an agent. A summoner.”

Tired of the repeat-after-me game, I simply sat and waited. His slate-gray eyes, the only part of him that hadn’t aged, tried to burn twin holes through the breast pocket of my Armani suit. It took an effort not to squirm under that withering glare.

“Well,” he grumped. “Aren’t you going to do the deed? You’re late, you know.”

After damn near falling out of the chair, I somehow managed to keep my face straight and my hand away from my suit pocket. “Do the deed?” I said, sounding like a stupid mynah bird again. “Do what deed?”

Uncle Mal snorted. “The letter, Martin. The one you’ve been carrying around in your pocket for a month. The one addressed to me. Go ahead, take it out, wave it under my nose. Then burn it, tear it up, whatever you have to do to see the chain broken. It’ll work this time.”

My bewildered stare obviously amused him. “Martin, Martin, Martin.” He chortled my name in a descending arpeggio. “You didn’t really think you were the first to come up with the idea, did you? The others only failed because my time wasn’t up. Hadn’t seen the agent yet. Well, now I’ve seen him. And he said you had the letter that would serve as my summons. Not that you’re required to show it to me. Just didn’t figure you for one who’d lose his nerve when it came to taking over—and getting rid of me. So what’s the problem? Do you really want to cheat yourself of the pleasure of rubbing my nose in it?”

I felt my face going crimson. Standing up, I whipped out the letter and smacked it onto the marble desktop. And just for dramatic effect, I smacked it again with a closed fist before giving it a shove. It skied clear across the polished expanse to collide with Uncle Mal’s equally expansive stomach.

“There,” I said. “Knock yourself out. Just be sure you make those ten copies and mail them on to ten other people. Don’t break the chain and hell, who knows? You just might live forever.”

I’d intended to make a big, histrionic exit at that point. But Uncle Mal’s reaction unexpectedly rooted my feet to the carpet. He’d picked up the letter with his left hand, and with his right had seized the big sterling silver lighter that had sat on the desk for decades. I’d never seen him use it, had never seen him smoke, ever. But now he coaxed its inch-high flame to life and held it next to the still-sealed letter.

“Wouldn’t matter,” he mumbled. “It’d only be broken by some other GL division moron with big ambitions.” He cleared his throat, and as if he were revealing some long-protected company secret, addressed me in a hissing stage whisper. “You can’t cheat the hangman, Martin,” he said.

Chortling, he then set the envelope ablaze.

It fell, burning, onto the desk, a tiny conflagration in the midst of a marble sea. From the first day I saw it, that damned desk always had reminded me of a tombstone.

Uncle Mal died before the little fire did. Without any fuss or bother at all, he just stopped breathing, right there in his chair. Oh, the coroner called it a coronary thrombosis, but I knew what had really killed him.

The letter.

The summons.

Can’t cheat the hangman. When your number’s up… Everyone’s time comes sooner or later. How many more vapid cliches can you apply?

Well, I ran Houghton Industries for twenty-six years after that, and I had plenty of time to think about all of those “eternal truths.” I thought about those “agents” Uncle Mal spoke of, too.

I thought about them a lot.

You know, it’s amazing how many doors you can open when you inherit a few billion bucks. No one turns you away. Not presidents. Not kings. Not prime ministers. Not even popes. There’s virtually nothing you can’t accomplish, as long as you have money.

So I suppose I was as ready as any mere mortal ever could be when the agent finally showed up for me.

He was certainly unimpressive as death angels go. Guess I’d half expected some clown in a black sheet, wielding a giant scythe. Well, instead, this clean-cut young fellow in an off-the-rack suit arrived to hand me a business card from “Death, Inc.” (Cute, huh?) He gave me the card and then stood there, smiling at me from the other side of my black slab status symbol.

Yeah, I kept the desk.

“You did receive our previous summonses, didn’t you Mr. Houghton?” He spoke in a near-whisper which I assumed was meant to sound “sepulchral,” and seemed a bit put out that his rasping failed to rattle me. “We believe that a certain Mr. Alex Simmons is currently holding the most recent notice sent to you.”

Simmons. My junior CEO. An asshole with delusions of corporate godhood.

“I’ve received several,” I grumped. “Thirty-nine in the last twenty-odd years, to be exact, that were addressed to me personally. Copied every frigging one of them ten frigging times. Sent them to three hundred and ninety arch-rivals, competitors, enemies, ex-wives, ex in-laws, et cetera.” I thought of Uncle Mal’s electric flow chart, still very much alive behind the wall panels over my head. “A hundred and twelve of them died,” I told the agent, and folded my hands across a belly twice the size my uncle’s had been. “It could have been better. Uncle Mal’s final tally was one sixty two.”

“An exemplary record,” the agent opined. “But I’m afraid yours will be remaining where it stands. This is your final notice. And of course, the summons will be activated soon, regardless of whether or not Mr. Simmons confronts you with the intercepted letter.”

“Of course,” I agreed, and reached discreetly into my desk drawer. “There’s just one other small matter that I’m afraid will require your attention.” While his eyebrows crawled up his forehead, I produced the pristine white envelope and sent it skidding across the desk toward him, just as I’d sent Uncle Mal’s letter sliding all those years ago. It went airborne for just a moment, until with the graceful sweep of one hand, he snatched it in mid-flight and stood glaring at its neatly-typed address.

“To the representative of Death, Inc.,” it read, “assigned to the final summons of Martin G. Houghton, president and CEO of Houghton Industries.”

The high-wattage glare turned itself on me then. “What are you playing at?”

“Oh, it’s not from me.” I smiled as he ripped open the envelope and glowered still harder at its single page contents. “As you can see from the letterhead, it’s a notice from His Eminence the Pope. You know him, don’t you? The vicar of God on Earth, and all that?”

He gaped. I went on smiling. “Oh, it’s not that I expect to live forever. But since your company’s apt to be a tad busy for a while…”

He wasn’t listening. His disbelieving eyes were scanning the letter’s brief paragraphs over and over again. The paragraphs began with, “Greetings from the Vatican. This letter brings good luck!” and ended with, “You must duplicate and deliver this letter to ten thousand other agents or employees of Death Inc., or risk exile to eternal oblivion. Do not under any circumstances break the chain.”

Death flew, screaming, out the window.

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