Mr. Peters, the protagonist, is a seemingly normal married businessman. His appearance of normality is something he takes pride in. You see, Mr. Peters likes to kill things, but only when he has no chance of being caught. He tested it by poisoning pigeons in a park.* One day he spread poisoned birdseed in an uptown park, the next in a downtown park. When you leave tracks going in one direction they can follow you. But when one footprint falls here today, another ten miles away tomorrow, and on the third day the track falls behind your back, how can you follow – how can anyone follow?
Mr. Peters wants to progress to killing people. It doesn’t matter who, as long as there’s no discernible pattern. And he has figured out a perfect method for doing so. In an old book he discovered the recipe for a poison so potent that no amount of cleaning or sterilizing will remove it from the surface it is spilled on. So he mixes up a batch of this poison and places one drop in an empty milk bottle.
…the milk bottle is placed outside the door, the milkman picks it up in the morning, he takes it to the plant (or the dairy, or whatever they call it) and he drops it in with the million other milk bottles into the chute, or the vat, or whatever it is, and all the bottles are boiled and cleansed with the latest scientific methods, and all the bottles come out clear and fresh as fresh air. All but one. That one has a forgotten fluid in it that will not be destroyed by fire or flame or heat or light. And the next day after that two ladies who live in the heart of town drop dead at the breakfast table.
Much like Richard Matheson’s The Distributor, this isn’t the story of the heroic detectives finding and catching the perpetrator. It’s about a murderer adding drops of poison to his milk bottles on irregular days, and reading the newspapers to see who he kills next. He sticks by his own rules and remains untraceable. It’s a terrifyingly simple way to kill if all you want to do is kill, and that’s what made this story stick so firmly in my mind. (And I can imagine how much more paranoia-inducing this would be to someone who still receives milk in the old glass bottles.)
*At this point the story strikes a note of unintentional hilarity for those familiar with the songs of Tom Lehrer, but as this was written in 1950 it isn’t really Carroll’s fault.
A Note for the Milkman by Sidney Carroll
Word count: 4,200
First published: Today’s Women, April 1950
Where to find it: Timeless Stories for Today and Tomorrow, edited by Ray Bradbury, 1979, Bantam
The Third Pan Book of Horror Stories, edited by Herbert van Thal, 1966, Pan Books