The storm outside was terrible. Rain came down in torrents and lashed the ground like whips. Thunder spoke in angry peals.
Inside, it was worse.
District Attorney Malcolm Sloan was begging for the lives of his wife and children.
Perhaps he had taken the gunshots for thunder, but his two young sons were already dead. Still he pleaded for their lives. Sheila, his young, beautiful wife, was lashed to a chair. Her mouth was filled with fabric torn from the skirt of the nightgown she wore, but she screamed and begged for the lives of her children and her husband just the same.
Her husband cried out too, in pain as he was struck again and again. His arms were broken, as were three of his ribs, and the men who beat him only laughed and kept on hitting him with crowbars. He no longer had the strength to cry out loudly. In terror, he stared at his wife. Tears streamed down her face. She trembled against the bonds that held her in a kitchen chair. Her legs were visible where her nightgown had been ripped, and the man who was watching the others beat Sloan, bent down beside her and put his hand on one of her knees.
"This is one nice piece you got here, Sloan," the man said. "If I had more time, Iíd sure spend it with her. But I donít." He heaved a sigh and got slowly to his feet. From under his jacket he took a gun. The men who were beating Sloan stopped, letting the district attorney drop to the floor.
Sloan tried to get to his feet but couldnít. In a hoarse whisper he said, "Iím going to kill you for this."
The man pointed his gun at Sloan. "Yeah. You ever look at me crooked again and this is just a sample of whatís coming." He laughed.
Then suddenly, he turned away and aimed the weapon at the beautiful but terrified young woman in the chair and fired pointblank at her heart.
Sloan screamed and pushed himself to his feet, knocking over one of the men who had been beating him. Stumbling as he did so, he made for the man who had killed his wife. The man laughed and slammed his gun against Sloanís head, knocking him down.
"You donít scare me, you son of a bitch," the man with the gun said. "Your time in power is over." He shoved the gun back into its holster and said to his strong arm men, "Letís get out of here."
"What about Sloan?" asked one of the gunmen.
"What about him? Heís no threat to us. Heís going to be too busy burying his family to do anything about us. I bet he even resigns his job as DA." He laughed.
He walked slowly to the door, and the two strong arm men followed after. Sloan lay in the floor, staring at his dead wife as he slowly passed out.
Each morning a police car came to Sloanís house and the driver waited in the driveway until Sloan came out; then he drove him to City Hall. This morning, as if knowing things were somehow different, he got out of the car, stretched his arms and legs and looked around.
The storm had stopped sometime around two in the morning. The sidewalks were dry now, but traces of the rain still lingered on the leaves and grass. The cop paused to admire a rosebush near the front door. Then he went inside, not surprised to find the door unlocked.
Nor did what he found inside seem to surprise him.
The Mayor, who had appointed Malcolm Sloan, appointed his replacement the next day, Not surprisingly, the new district attorney was a politician, something Sloan never had been except in name, and more familiar with the art and practice of compromise than the man he replaced. Sloan spent the day, the first of many, comatose in the hospital, while
doctors worked over him, not expecting their efforts to be rewarded.
To their astonishment, those efforts were rewarded and Sloan survived. But he did not get better quickly enough to attend the funerals of his wife and children. It was another rainy day.
He lay in his hospital bed, groggy from the drugs the doctors had filled his veins with, and thought his thoughts of vengeance. He knew the names of the men who had killed his family, and he knew the names of the men responsible for sending them. He had known what he wanted to do to them that first day, before the ambulance even got him to the hospital.
In the ensuing days, as he lay in his hospital bed, waiting for his health and strength to return, he figured out how he would do it.
"I wish I could give you back your job, Mal, I really do." The mayor seemed small and weak, a changed man, a beaten one. He wouldnít look Sloan in the eye. "But Mackeyís done a good job. I canít fire him, not now that heís got so many cases under weigh. You can understand that, canít you?"
"I sure can," Sloan said. He was better now, lots better. He still needed a cane to walk with, but he had been assured he would walk again without such help, and soon. He had promised himself he would do a lot more than just walk again with those legs. He would use them to hunt down the men who had killed his wife and sons.
Mackey, according to the Mayor had done a good job. Of course he had. He had done everything he was told to do. No boat was rocked in this town, not these days, not by Mackey.
He couldnít blame him. If Mackey did the job the way Sloan had done it, he would suffer the same fate. Who would want that? Mackey might or might not be affiliated with the mob, but after what had happened to Sloanís family, he wasnít going to stick his neck out either way. There was only one man who would stick his neck out now, Sloan, the man who had already stuck it out and got it lopped off.
Only he would do the lopping now. He promised himself that.
He left town.
He owned a ranch in another state. He grew up on that ranch. His parents had died years ago. He had a good amount of money in a bank in that same town. The local bank, unlike most banks these days, was actually financially sound. Sloan settled down on that ranch and let his leg heal, then worked hard to rebuild his strength for several months.
Maybe he was being forgotten back in the town where his wife and sons died. The people there who had known him all knew what had happened. They probably thought he was a broken man.
He was not a broken man, not entirely. He had suffered an emotional injury that would never heal, but the physical injuries, the ones that were meant to kill him Ė they would heal. He would make them heal by sheer will power, if nothing else worked.
Hadnít he already figured out what he would do?
He kept thinking of a story by Edgar Allan Poe. It was the story of a country that was stricken with plague. The rulers of the country ignored the needs of the people. They locked themselves away and blinded themselves to the truth. The country was dying but they were oblivious.
Then something came and walked in that land and handed out -- was it retribution, or just punishment?
From his hand it would be retribution.
He would call himself the Red Death.
The Red Death struck for the first time on a quiet evening in early May. The day had been mild, the weather pleasant. The evening was suited for taking a long walk with someone you loved. Sloan could see that many couples were doing just that. Good for them. Not everyone realized the extent of the disease that was eating away at this town. He had a plan, and if he could just put the plan in motion, maybe a lot of people never would.
He wore a light, dark suit that was as close to being nondescript as a new suit ever could be. Under his jacket, he wore a small caliber gun in a shoulder rig. In his right jacket pocket was a folded piece of red cloth, a hood that would fit over his whole head. As he walked, no one paid the slightest bit of attention to him. He was almost too ordinary to even notice.
But he felt certain they would know about him and be talking about him, very soon. Not as Mal Sloan. They would never associate the Red Death with a broken man like Mal Sloan.
Three weeks ago, he went to see an old friend. The manís name was Ouyang Lee. Lee and his father were two of the few men in America who could teach the knowledge they taught. Years ago, Sloan studied under Leeís father. He had learned certain skills and to his own delight, and that of his teacher, he showed a rare aptitude for them. He talked a long time while Lee simply listened, scowling. When Sloan was finished, Ouyang Lee said, "Youíre a fool."
Sloan nodded. "I think maybe youíre right. But Iím a highly motivated fool."
Ouyangís scowl deepened. He sighed. "I know that as well, which is why Iím not even trying to talk you out of this insanity. I hope like blazes you arenít about to ask me to be your faithful Oriental sidekick."
"I would never even think of a thing like that."
"Then what do you want?"
"I was trained by your father and if he were still alive, I would have gone to have this talk with him Ė even if I had to go to China. I remember some of what he taught me, maybe I remember much. I need to be certain."
"You want to train with me?"
"I only want you to watch me in practice and tell me if Iím good enough to accomplice what I want to accomplice."
"Most Americans these days, know very little of the martial arts. To them it is all the Japanese Jui Jitsu. They know little of Kung Fu or Tai Chi, much less the deadlier arts that are almost complete secrets even in China."
"I know a bit about them. I need to know if I am good enough. And I need to know much mire about those deadlier secrets you just mentioned."
"Some of those are secrets that you must never use to kill with."
"Iím sorry, but I canít promise that."
"I shouldnít help you. It goes against my own oath."
"I fear I impose too greatly on our friendship," Sloan said. He started to his feet.
"I canít help you," said Ouyang. "Not directly. But I can watch you at practice and give you my opinion of how good you are. Will you promise that if I think youíre not good enough, that you will abandon this insane scheme of yours?"
"Iíll promise to change my approach," Sloan said.
"If that is the most intelligent you will be, it will have to suffice," said Ouyang,
"Then it will have to do."
That afternoon they spent hours at an empty warehouse owned by Ouyang.
He watched soberly as Sloan demonstrated his skills. He sparred with him several times.
He was amazed, but not impressed.
"You are very good Ė better than I recalled you to be," Ouyang said afterward. "Iím not convinced you are good enough. Not against these criminals. You are going to your death and I wonít help you die."
"The ones who need that help are the ones I am going after," Sloan said. "I ask you blessing, nothing more."
"My blessing? My blessing to die? Then you have it. Now get out of here. I never want to see you again."
It was not what Sloan hoped to hear, but he only bowed and said, "Thank you."
And three weeks later, in the shadows of an alleyway he waited until two men came and tried the back door of a small shop.
In the darkness he saw little in detail, but he could figure out what was happening.
He had been told a story by an informant he had used often when he was District Attorney. A man had refused to pay protection money. A man who owned a small music store. The man, who lived in his shop, was threatened. Still he refused to give in.
From his own experience, Sloan knew what was going to happen. He watched the two men huddle by the back door of the shop, near the delivery entrance. The door came open and the men went inside.
Sloan took the red cloth hood and carefully tied it over his face, making it secure enough that it would not slip and blind him at the wrong minute. Then he crossed the broad alley and let himself in through the same door the crooks had gone so silently through.
He heard noise in the front part of the shop. Noise that was intended to make the man who was sleeping up over the shop think there were prowlers in the store.
It was darker in the shop than it had been in the alley. Sloan stayed in the back room and allowed his eyesight to adjust to the blackness. There was a narrow stairway against the far wall. The storeís owner would have to come down it.
Sloan had already seen the crook that had stayed behind to wait for the man.
He was hiding in the shadows by the entrance that led to the front of the store. He heard a soft padding from above and then heard the store owner on the stairs. The thief who waited by the door, pulled back into the deeper shadows until he was completely hidden.
It was as if something changed in the room. It was almost as if Sloan could feel himself disappearing.
He could feel himself being replaced by another Ė creature. Not a man, but something else. Something beyond a man. A spirit of vengeance who was called The Red Death.
Across the room there was a movement in the shadows. Perhaps only a being such as the Red Death could detect it. The Red Death pulled his gun from his pocket.
Silent, unnoticed by either of the other men in the back room of the music store, The Red Death lifted the gun and took aim.
It was a small gun because the Red Death did not figure he would have to fire at a distant target. It was small also because the Red Death knew that a small bullet in a manís brain was every bit as effective as a big one. The shop owner turned to look where the shot had come from. He saw the Red Death loom from the darkness.
The thief who remained alive moved into sight in the other room. The Red Death lifted his gun and hissed loudly, "Get down."
It was too confusing a situation for the store owner to understand, and the Red Death thought the man would probably shoot him. But somehow, in a split second the store owner processed what was going on and knew the masked man who not shooting at him. He dropped to the floor.
The man in the front room fired a split second before the Red Death did. He fired too hastily. The Red Death heard the bullet splat against the wall beyond the open door. The gunman was clearly outlined against the front window of the shop and The Red Death took a moment to aim before sending his small caliber slug into the manís chest. The gunman screamed in agony and the gun flew from his hand. He crumpled to the floor.
The Red Death ran to the door and peered into the shop. In the semi-darkness he could see the gunman writhing in pain on the floor. The Red Death hurtled into the room. In the faint light he could make out the blood. The wounded man wasnít thinking about the gun now. He was clutching his chest and twisting around on the floor, as if movement somehow lessened the pain. The Red Death picked up the other manís gun in a gloved hand. He put it on a counter. The wounded man didnít even see him do it.
A light came on. The store owner had found the light switch. The Red Death looked down at the wounded gunmanís face and didnít recognize it. That wasnít important. He had put him out of commission, at least temporarily, and that was important. He told the store owner to turn off the light. "Youíre wearing a mask."
"That doesnít make me one of these bastards," The Red Death said. "I can hear sirens. The police are on the way. Put your gun on that table over there and stay away from it when the cops come. They wonít necessarily be on your side, but when they see what happened, theyíll feel more like questioning you than shooting you. Do you have a phone?"
"Of course I have a phone. Itís upstairs"
"Call a newspaper. Tell them what happened. Get a reporter out here. The police will be less likely to get rough with you if they have reporters nosing around, even the reporters in this town."
"Who in hell are you, anyway?"
"You can call me the Red Death," Sloan said, heading toward the door to the alley.
"What kind of a damned fool name is that?" the store owner called after him.
Hearing himself say it aloud, Sloan had had pretty much the same reaction.
He could hear the sirens getting closer. He ran out of the alleyway, keeping to the shadows. The first police car sped past him as he ducked down behind a trash can where he wouldnít be seen. He made his way to where he had parked his car and left town, keeping to a circuitous route of mostly back streets and getting past the city limit before the police could organize a good search for him.
He was pretty sure they wouldnít organize much of a search anyway; it was just a botched robbery by a hot shot with a mask and a fancy name. Pretty Boy Floyd, the bank robber, might be jealous of his apparent flare until he figured out The Red Death was not in the same line of work he was.
Sloan had a cabin just off the Old Highway, a place he had moved to after selling his house in town. There was a shed behind it where he could hide his car. Or at least put it. If the police did that good a search, they would look in the shed and find the car, not that it mattered. There was nothing to tie the car to the shooting unless it had been spotted near the store, which he didnít think was the csae this late at night. His cabin was three or four miles past the city line; he didnít think they would do that diligent a search, anyway. Not yet. Not until they realized the Red Death was after the syndicate that had them in its pocket.
When that happened, things would get very interesting.
The first light of morning, streaming through the cabinís grimy windows, woke him. Whether or not he was rested, he was rested enough. He fixed coffee and cooked oatmeal, not realizing how hungry he was until he started on his second bowl. He had a small radio. It wasnít easy to tune in the local stations this far out of town, but he could get the big station from the state capitol and The Red Death was the lead story.
He began to think about what the Red Death might do next just keep the name on the radio and in the newspapers.
Later that week he struck a speakeasy on Lucky Street. He simply armed himself with a second pistol that matched his first, and a blackjack, put on his mask and walked through the front door of the building on Lucky Street, banging the guard who stood there in the face with the blackjack. The place was packed with customers.
Across the room he saw the man who the operator of the club. He thought the distance was such that possibly he should have brought a bigger gun. But he lifted the weapon in his right hand and fired carefully. His bullet tore into the manís right hip and sent him spinning around. Panic erupted and people were running for the door. As they piled out of the place, gangsters, armed with automatics, flooded into the room from the offices in back of the club. The Red Death planted his feet firmly and picked his shots carefully.
Taken by total surprise, the criminals panicked and fired too hastily. Three of the crooks fell to the floor right then, at least one of them dead. None of his opponentsí slugs came anywhere near where The Red Death stood. Perhaps it was a miracle that only gangsters were shot, but the place was emptied of innocent bystanders quickly enough.
The gangsters fled back to where they had come from.
The Red Death looked around. The place was empty. Tables were overturned. Chairs were smashed to pieces. No one had stayed behind to take a shot at him while he was occupied with other people. The gangsters had never seen such a bold attack on their own territory as the Red Death was showing them. So the Red Death put away both his now-empty guns, turned around and left the wrecked night club.
Outside the street was empty. The Red Death walked to his car and no one tried to stop him.
That morning the name of the Red Death emblazoned the headlines in letters large enough that any gangster could read what they said.
The Red Death had left an unmistakable message. He had declared war.
There was a pawn shop on Ridgemont Avenue that had been a front for horse race betting for some time. The betting parlor was in back. The place had been open for at least three years, but it had never been raided.
It was widely known and for months Sloan had been gathering information about it in hopes of springing a surprise police raid on it. The betting parlor provided the mob with thousands of dollars. Sloan was shot before he could lead the raid as district attorney, but he decided he could lead one now. There would be just two members of the raiding party, too. The Red Death and a stick of dynamite.
This time, in addition to his pistols, he carried a shotgun.
The pawnshop manager was behind the counter when The Red Death, wearing his mask, walked in. The manager saw him and gave a yelp. He made a move that obviously showed intent to push the alarm button hidden under the counter. The Red Death shifted his shotgun in the managerís direction. The crook saw that, sprang back from the alarm. The blast from the shotgun tore through the counter only inches from the shopís manager.
The manager wasnít hurt unless a few flying splinters had stuck in his chest or arm, but he gave a scream as if he was dying, and ran toward the end of the counter where he crouched down out of sight.
The shotgunís second blast tore through the door into the back room. With practiced speed, the Red Death loaded two more shells into the shotgun and fired them into the door, widening the hole.
He heard men screaming and running for safety in the back room.
He knew from the investigation that had been carried on to prepare for the police raid that was never carried out, that there were two men in that room, armed discretely with automatics. There were two shotguns, not unlike the one he was firing, hidden behind removable panels in the far wall. The racket from in back suggested to the Red Death that the panic in the room was too great for the guards to get to the shotguns. A few bullets came through the door, but the Red Death was standing to one side, well out of the range of those slugs, which were ripping into a display of musical instruments that people had pawned.
He was satisfied. He let the confusion continue. He walked along the counter toward the corner where the pawn broker was, leaned over until he could see the man.
"Greetings from the Red Death," he said, then turned around and left.
The newspaper story about that incident didnít mention that the Red Death had called himself by name, but it compared the attack to the earlier one where the Red Death had identified himself. The Red Death was known. He was a celebrity. The public was talking about him. So, Sloan had no doubt, was the underworld. They would set out to stop him now. They would set traps. They would hurl challenges.
He would have to be careful Ö if it were not too late for that. Even so, the response of the underworld caught him by surprise. He was in his cabin. He had just finished lunch and was cleaning up. There was a knock on the door.
When he opened the door, he saw Ouyang Lee. He invited his friend in and offered him a cup of coffee. Lee accepted. For a few moments they just sat, sipping the hot beverage. Finally, Ouyang Lee spoke.
"You have to stop all this."
"Stop all what?"
"All hell. Your one man vigilante war. You have to stop being the Red Death."
"No one knows who the Red Death is."
"I do. You do. Before long others will begin to figure it out, too."
So Ouyang Lee had figured it out. Sloan wasnít surprised. Lee was a smart man. He was Sloanís best friend. No one knew how Sloanís mind worked better than Ouyang did.
"Itís not a one man job, cleaning up this town," Sloan said. "I could use help."
"Donít look for me to help you," his friend said. There was a momentís pause and Ouyang looked uncomfortable Ė even nervous.
He said, "Theyíve hired me to stop you?"
Whether or not Sloan was able to keep the shock from his face he couldnít say. "Youíre working for the people who killed my family?"
Ouyang almost spat the words. "Iíve been working for them for months!" The words shook Sloan more than anything had shaken him since the murders of his wife and children. In a choked voice he said, "Why would you work for them?"
"Donít be such a fool, Mal. The only reason Iíd work for anyone. Money. The people youíre attacking are paying me tens of thousand of dollars to do their work. They call it Ďcleaning up.í They call me their Ďclean-up man.í"
"Do you know what this would do to your father, if heíd learned about it when he was alive?"
"Oh, shut the hell up, you pious imbecile," Ouyang snarled. "Iím trying to save your life."
"Save my life!"
"My life had already ended," Sloan said.
"I can tell you who ordered the death of your family."
It was the one thing Sloan had never thought he would hear. All he had done had merely been done to hurt the mob, to cost them as much as he would before, as they inevitably would, they figured out who the Red Death was, and killed him. But now Ė but now, with the name of the man or men who had ordered his children killed, he could end this. He could deal with these people once and for all.
Ouyang was talking. "I work for the people in the state capitol, not for the clowns who run this city. They wanted me to kill you but I told them I could stop you if they told me who was responsible for killing Shiela and let me hand him too you as a sacrifice."
"Who is it?"
"Do you agree?"
"Of course I donít. If I can kill whoever it is, I will. But Iíll do anything I can to bring down his organization as well."
"Listen to me, you idiot." He was snarling. He leaned forward, his eyes burning with anger. "Listen to me. The man who ordered the killing was the Mayor."
"Mayor Jordon? But thatís impossible. He appointed me as D.A."
"And he thought he could control you. When he realized he couldnít, he ordered the hit on you and your family."
"How do you know this?í
"I told them if they gave me that manís name, I could end this thing with everyone happy. Them Ė me Ė and even you."
"Thereís nothing can make me happy anymore Ė though this comes close."
"Iíve arranged it so if you take out Jordon and Mackey and then stop, youíll be left alone. The gang will consider the matter even and therefore closed. But you canít come after them again. Not ever. Iíve also arranged for Jordon and Mackey to be alone in the Mayorís private office this evening. Theyíre expecting a phone call from the capitol, and theyíll wait in that office until midnight if necessary. Their bodyguards have been ordered to leave when you show up. They wonít shoot at you. They wonít try to stop you. Itís all going to be between you and Jordon and Mackey. And believe me, Mal, nothing would make me happier than for you to get this whole thing over with."
He didnít wait for Sloan to say anything. He got up and left the room.
Sloan sat for a long time trying to digest it all. He couldnít, of course. Certainly not the part about Ouyang Lee being one of the mob. But at least his friend had given him the names he wanted. He knew now who had caused the death of his wife and children.
He clambered to his feet, got his weapons and hat, and went through the same door Ouyang Lee had gone through moments ago.
In addition to the Mayorís office, Jordon maintained an office in the Wilmer Building. It was an old building, just six stories high, on Corning Avenue in an old part of town. Corning Avenue had been the townís political center for fifty years. From his office there, Mayor Jordon had operated, at first for men more powerful than himself, and at last had joined their ranks. Events and decisions that affected the cityís well-being had been made in his office for a good many years now. The events of tonight would rank with the most important of them.
Sloan approached the building as cautiously as any. He parked his car on another street, walked over, using back alleys as much as possible. When he was almost there, he stopped and watched the place for a good thirty minutes.
The bodyguards were overzealous in obeying their orders Ė either that or it was a trap Ė because there was no sign of them. After a while Sloan decided thereís was only one way to make sure.
He walked to the building and went inside.
The lobby was empty, too.
Jordonís office was on the second floor. Sloan took the stairs, went up, removed his shoes and walked in his stocking feet to the door of Jordonís office. He could hear men talking inside. He recognized the voices as Jordonís and Mackeyís.
He tried the door. It wasnít even locked.
Jordon, who was fat, did not move like a fat man. He reacted very quickly at sight of Sloan. He yanked open his desk drawer and lifted out a pistol. He fired. The shot went wide.
Sloanís gun was already out when he opened the door, but he took a moment to aim. His first bullet caught Jordon right in the forehead. He shifted the gun to his right and centered his aim on Mackeyís forehead. Mackey was begging for his life. He might as well not have bothered.
Sloan checked both the bodies and found them dead. He left the office, went down the hall to the elevator. It was an automatic elevator that did not require an operator. Sloan rode down one floor.
And there in the lobby waited Ouyang Lee.
The friends stood there looking at one another.
They were not unalike. They were the same height, with similar builds, and both had the same look of haunted resignation in their eyes.
Each of them held a gun in his right hand.
As the elevator door closed behind Sloan, Ouyang fired first.
The bullet ripped into Sloanís chest, sending him back against the closed elevator door. There was no pain just yet. Sloan fired and Oyang crumpled to the floor, the gun dropping from his useless fingers. Sloan was certain his old friend was dead. He thought, I hope they paid you enough for this, Oyang, but he was certain they had not.
Now his fingers were not strong enough to hold a gun. He couldnít feel it slip from his hand, but he heard it clatter to the floor.
And then his legs gave out and he fell and there was already more blood pooling on the floor than he though possible.
But that was not important.
What was important to Mal Sloan in those last seconds was that he thought he felt Sheilaís welcoming arms close around him.