[Fiction] Killing softly with sorghum

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Image credit purple-grey-fox on DeviantArt

In a rural town that had broken its bread and bad habits, bread had finally broken them. Amidst arid plains and a burst of health-consciousness, the town of Gumtree Flats in the Northern Territory, Australia, had taken the plunge and switched over to the gluten-free life.

No more would wheat darken their tables at breakfast or dinner. Barley, rye and oats were tossed in the trash and their suppliers politely informed further deliveries would not be necessary. Grains were swept from the pantry and scoured from the supermarket in an attempt to root them out before their determination faltered and they thought better of their plan. Perhaps hardest of all, fridges were thrown open and their doughy ales and bitter, brooding brews disgorged to general lamentation; Holly Robbins was spotted wailing upon her lawn as her neighbor Drew solemnly poured her latest batch of Hotchkins’ Malt Special into the thirsty grass.

Grain was purged, with all the word implies.

Little Calvin Quinn, the two Quinn dads’ kid, marveled at the town’s anti-grain campaign with all the wonder that a six-year-old can muster.

“Look, Cal,” dad Brian said to him. “Everyone cares so much about your health that they’re chucking the grain so you don’t get sick!”

“Is that cause I’m a seal yak, dad?”

“A celiac, Cal. And yes! Isn’t it just swell of them?”

Of course, the true reason behind the grain purge was far different. A string of health-food ads on television had sparked concerns in the Gumtree Flats mayor’s office. Alarmed by the severe threat gluten posed to their longevity with scary things like gut inflammation and escalated intestinal permeability, Mayor Wrigley had called for a debate around a possible ban on the dangerous substance. Citizens from both sides had weighed in, arguing in circles until eventually, by some miracle, the town agreed to try it – just for a little while.

People streamed from the town hall that evening in chattering droves, but only one left in smug silence, smiling softly to herself.

She killed softly with sorghum.

Naturally, a substitute had to be procured – some of the residents of Gumtree Flats didn’t have much more pleasure in life than a good strong hunk of bread and a dark, cool draught out upon the patio. Sorghum was settled on as an alternative: a few farmers in the region already grew it, and it could be cheaply imported by some health-savvy suppliers who knew a sale when they saw one. Within a week, artisan sorghum beer was flowing at the taphouse and people began to joke that soon they’d go all the way and maybe be a vegan next month as well. There were even tentative, self-conscious jabs about gentrification and how it was really time Gumtree Flats got its own modern art gallery on the go.

Weeks passed. Sorghum bread, sorghum alcohol, sorghum-almond muffins. A sea of sorghum, flowing into and out of the residents’ homes largely unremarked. Gumtree Flats had become a gluten-free zone and only a disgruntled few would gripe about it in the safety of their own homes while consuming a clandestine bowl of Cheerios. Life went on, as it always does, and normality resumed.

All, that is, save for one very curious incident. Mary Gunderson, a grain farmer living maybe ten or fifteen kilometers out of the city center, was found dead on her property one morning about a month after the ban came into effect. The case was so bizarre that the Gumtree Flats ranger, Officer Gordon Quayle, was forced to call in detectives from Katherine more than fifty kilometers away. Arriving at the scene of the crime in their dusty old Ford Falcon, the detectives were left scratching their heads.

It seemed that Mary, inspecting one of her silos, had somehow overbalanced and fell in. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem – settled grain is rather dense, and barring a rare air pocket or unstable stack will easily support the weight of an average human long enough for them to make their way to the ladder and safety. But oddly, the silo hadn’t been full of grain. Instead, it had been entirely drained and replaced with low-density sorghum, with the result that Mary had been quickly engulfed and drowned, sinking straight to the bottom. The postman had only discovered the death when he saw Mary’s arm sticking out of a pile of sorghum that had spilled from the burst doors.

It was a nasty way to go for sure – but what a puzzle! The other storage silo was full of grain, as expected, and the detectives couldn’t understand how anyone would be able to conduct such a large-scale switch unnoticed. Nothing else was discovered on Mary’s farm except an empty hessian sack on her kitchen table with bits of sorghum still clinging to its rough weave and the initials GF stamped in red upon it. Stumped and with no real leads to follow, Mary’s death went mostly unreported and the case was quietly dropped.

The second murder did not pass so unremarked. Beesy Wright, a vociferous opponent to the grain ban at the time of its debate, died one evening a fortnight later under mysterious circumstances. She was attending an illicit grain meetup of a kind that had become somewhat common in the community following the imposition of the ban. Attendees would bring in wheat-based foods they’d either saved or smuggled to a secret venue, where they would proceed to devour the cereals and breads in an orgy of illegality. Despite the criminal nature of the occasion, one of the attendees had panicked and called the Gumtree Flats emergency services when Beesy had started choking and gasping for air, ultimately suffocating before help arrived.

As a rule, Officer Quayle was mildly sympathetic to these gluten offenders, and considering the circumstances let the perpetrators off with a light fine and a warning. From their shaken accounts, Beesy had started choking after chugging down a beer brought by one of the participants – the only one who hadn’t stuck around for emergency to arrive. Probed for a description of the probable killer, all they could say was that they had possessed a feminine build and their face had been obscured by a deep concealing hood. It was, they admitted, an unorthodox costume, but who were they to judge? The only other evidence Quayle found was a red-stamped hessian sack, with clinging bits of sorghum and a few bottles of an unlabelled yeasty brew.

The town exploded with speculation and fear. Some enterprising journalist over at the Gumtree Gazette managed to piece together Beesy’s murder with that of poor Mary Gunderson, billing the red-stamped hessian sacks as the mark of a deranged serial killer. WHO IS NEXT ON THE GLUTEN-FREE AVENGER’S LIST? screamed the headlines.

People reacted all over town, scrambling to distance themselves from gluten as publicly as possible. Bakeries began posting complete ingredient lists of all their products. Henry Oats put a sign up below the old weathered Oats Grocery Store board proclaiming “Now 100% Gluten-free!! No Gluten in Store, Anywhere!” Even the dads Quinn could be heard around the school, loudly asserting their son’s celiac condition to the school nurse and principal.

“Never had gluten near Calvin, and never will! What kind of parents would we be?” exclaimed dad Brian, proudly.

“Anyone who thinks we’ve ever so much as had a dry rye bread roll with a slice of cheese in our life is fooling themselves,” agreed dad Henry, slipping his arm around Brian’s waist with a loving squeeze. Principal Feathermire just rolled her eyes, clenched her teeth, and tried not to think about the mountain of paperwork she could be attending to right now, instead.

But try as the citizens of Gumtree Flats might, the terror of the so-called ‘gluten-free avenger’ continued. Gluten proponent after gluten proponent were found dead in bizarre manners, every fortnight or so. Meg Chadha was discovered at the bottom of the Katherine River with an old fashioned millstone tied to her neck. Yezza Lesteen was nearly hacked through with a harvest sickle. And poor old Benny Yates was found baked to a crisp in his wood-fired pizza oven, which had been lovingly stoked by a practiced hand. At every crime scene, one of those brightly red-stamped hessian sacks with clinging sorghum declared another victim lost to their love of grain.

The town fell into chaos. Officer Quayle gladly surrendered his jurisdiction first to the state police and then the po-faced federal agents who flocked to Gumtree Flats, eager to crack down on what had become a national embarrassment. But then, somewhere after the sixth or seventh murder, the killings stopped. One fortnight passed, then two and three with no further homicides. The town breathed, just a little, but remained as vigorously gluten-free as before. Slowly, things returned to a kind of strained normalcy.

Finally, one morning, little Calvin Quinn turned up at the police station, dazed, holding an empty hessian sack with GF stamped in red on the front. Immediately, he was bundled into Quayle’s office, which had been converted into the center for the murder spree investigation. Sitting him down on a swivel chair with his feet not even touching the ground, the detectives gently interrogated him about what had happened.

“A nice woman came up to me on my way to school,” Calvin said. “She handed me this sack and told me to bring it to the police station as a special favor for her. She said if I did that, then everybody in the town would be safe and my dads wouldn’t have to be so scared anymore.” Try as they might, the detectives couldn’t get anything more out of the kid, who just shut his mouth and shook his head stubbornly when they asked him for a description of the ‘nice woman’.

Inside the sack, they found a note. Officer Quayle read it out loud to the assembled, exhausted crowd.

“To whom it may concern – this was only going to end one way. Either you’d follow the trail of bread crumbs back to me, or I’d get through enough of the double-faced gluten lovers in this town to convince everyone that gluten-free is the way to go. Now look – I’m finished with my fun for the moment, but if anybody in this town even thinks of returning to their old wheat-based ways, then it’s on their own head. Let it be known that even thinking about gluten is a health risk you don’t want to take. For now, goodbye – and give that kid a chocolate bar, yeah? His heart’s in the right place.”

The room was very quiet. Officer Quayle slowly folded up the note, put it down on the desk, and blinked, gently brushing off a few clinging grains of sorghum from his shirt.

Gumtree Flats had gone gluten-free, and it seemed there was no going back.

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