At precisely 9:35 am on March 21st a blue and white ZipEx van parked in the loading zone of the Mutual Tower on Pine Street. Leaving the flashers on, the driver, dressed in a blue and white jumpsuit and visored cap, passed through security and took the elevator to Grayson, Paulson, and Klein on the seventh floor and handed a slim blue and white mailer to Jason McGiver who was on his way to a budget meeting.
McGiver retraced his steps to his cubicle and unsealed the mailer. After reading the contents, he removed his Employee of the Year Rolex and placed it on the center of his desk. Walking past his colleagues filing into the conference room, he took the elevator to the top floor, pushed through the fire exit, crossed the graveled roof to the parapet overlooking Wall Street, glanced at Trinity Church, then went over the edge.
At ten-thirty the blue and white van parked outside Pace University. The secretary in the business department directed the messenger to the faculty lounge where Amy Tanaka was finishing a snack of carrot sticks and Diet Coke. Smiling, he handed her a blue and white mailer, tipped his cap and left.
After reading the contents, Assistant Professor Tanaka opened her laptop and posted a Blackboard announcement cancelling her eleven o’clock class and reminding students to review chapters 8-12 of Lewison and Harp’s Principles of Marketing for next week’s quiz.
She went to her office, retrieved her coat, and left the building. Flagging a taxi on Park Row, she cabbed it over the Brooklyn Bridge to her flat in DUMBO. She checked the mail, removing her utility bills and a pizza coupon, which she left on the kitchen counter. She opened a bottle of chardonnay, placing the twist off cap next to her mail. She disrobed in the bedroom, folded her blouse and skirt over a chair, then drew a bath. She swallowed twenty-two sleeping pills, consumed the wine, and climbed into the tub. She turned off the water and slashed her left wrist with three deep deliberate cuts. Her right wrist showed no injuries, perhaps, the medical examiner speculated, because she had already lost consciousness.
Half an hour later the blue and white uniformed driver was seen entering a building on Wooster Street. He pressed the buzzer to apartment 3C. Marian Newhouse, who had just washed her hair, wrapped a New York Giants bath towel around her head, and asked the caller to identify himself. She buzzed him in but did not open the door. Security cams showed the driver sliding the mailer under her door and leaving.
After reading the contents, Marian put on a light jacket and called her neighbor to watch her eight-year-old son Gerald who was, as always, watching a science fiction movie on his laptop.
Mrs. Klein in 3F, as always, answered on the first ring. Marian explained she had a family emergency and had to leave immediately. Could she, possibly, watch Gerald? Mrs. Klein quickly agreed. A widow whose children had moved out of state, she was always glad to babysit Gerald. She was convinced the boy was not autistic at all, but just a withdrawn genius who probably would find fame editing music videos for Madonna or that new girl Lady Go Go. She had a key to 3C and let herself in. Marian was already gone. Mrs. Klein made tea and was playing Wordle on her phone when two policemen arrived to inform her that Marian Newhouse had killed herself in a nearby playground. They were puzzled why she hanged herself with a Giants towel.
By that time the ZipEx driver had parked on Ludlow and left a mailer with Luis Castro who had just finished his weekly podcast. A back injury had limited him to working part time at Le Bistro, but his YouTube channel Eating in Apple had picked up ads and sponsors. What had started as a hobby had become a lucrative sideline. After reading the contents of the mailer, he filled his cat’s dish with organic dry food, topped off her bowl with Fiji water, then took the Luger his grandfather brought back from the Bulge, hobbled downstairs to the laundry room and shot himself. Mr. Kim of Madame Choy’s told the police he briefly spoke with Castro that morning about doing a promo for his restaurant. Castro, he said, sounded cheerful and confident as always. He recalled they both discussed the events in Ukraine. He remembered someone saying that he couldn’t watch CNN anymore, but Mr. Kim could not recall whether he or Castro had said it.
Booker Thomas was manning the desk of New Hope Halfway House when the blue and white uniformed driver delivered a mailer for Frank Cassidy. Thomas checked the board and informed the messenger that Cassidy was in group therapy for another hour. He accepted the blue and white envelope and assured the driver that Cassidy would receive it. Mailers were special events in a halfway house, often signaling good news from attorneys, checks from friends, or drugs. Booker signaled the supervisor. Any mailings had to be inspected in front of the recipient.
When Frank Cassidy left group, Booker beckoned him to the front desk. Davina Brown, the supervisor, led him to her small office where he opened the mailer. Glancing inside and seeing a single sheet of paper, she directed him to extract it, shake it, and show it to her upside down. Smiling with approval, she motioned Cassidy to leave. She recalled chuckling. Cassidy was a recovering alcoholic and highly unlikely to consume anything that could be smuggled in an envelope.
She was shocked when his body was found in the second-floor bathroom that evening. He had died of a massive heroin overdose. His arms bore no previous needle marks.
The afternoon bartender at Hooligans on 54th glanced up as the blue and white uniformed messenger entered. Feeling drained from his recent dialysis treatment at the VA, the barman rose slowly from his stool and took the blue and white mailer from the smiling messenger. He fumbled with the pull tap a few times before opening the envelop. After reading the contents, he told the barmaid he was feeling ill and leaving early. She could tend bar until his relief showed up at six.
Two days later police divers recovered his body from the East River. He had weighted himself down with a pair of bowling balls, looping his belt through the handles of their bags. The Purple Heart he had received in Desert Storm was pinned to the collar of his jacket.
An hour later the blue and white van appeared on West 125th Street. The messenger slipped through the revolving door to the Academy of African Dance and ascended the wide staircase to the rehearsal hall where Diane Jackson was carefully stretching. Still recovering from recent knee surgery, she was testing her right leg carefully when she was handed the blue and white mailer. She read the contents, nodded to the driver, and left the room without a word. Not bothering to change, she donned slacks and a sweater over her Danskins, slipped on her shoes and left the building.
Returning home by bus, she took the elevator to her fifth-floor apartment, emptied a bottle of pain pills, washing the capsules down with a pomegranate energy drink. Feeling cold, she crawled under her comforter and quickly fell asleep. She breathed deeply for more than two hours before her heart finally stopped.
Helen Bowman had dozed off watching an afternoon movie when the buzzer rang in her Castle Village apartment. She sat up, muttering. A neighbor’s loud party had disturbed her sleep the night before. She shook her head to rouse herself and waddled to the door. Pressing the button, she told the messenger she would meet him in the lobby. She wanted to check her mail. After fluffing her hair in place, she opened the door, and took the elevator to the first floor.
She accepted the mailer, squinting in the afternoon sun. Opening the envelope, she walked to the mailboxes. But after reading the contents, she froze. She blinked several times, then sighed. Leaving her keys dangling in the mailbox, she went outside and made her way to Henry Hudson Parkway. Noticing an orange construction truck speeding toward her, she ran in front of it before the driver could stop.
Each body was discovered and reported separately. It took some time before the police, operating from different precinct houses, pieced together the chain of events. Eight suicides in a single day was a record for Manhattan. A special team of investigators was assembled, collecting evidence and reaching out to the FBI and Homeland Security for assistance.
Witnesses agreed the messenger wore a blue and white uniform and sunglasses. The Mutual Tower security guard estimated that he was in his early twenties. The Pace secretary remembered him as being a bit older and recalled that he had a moustache. Both stated he was of medium height and build with blond hair. Booker Thomas did not remember the driver having a moustache and estimated his age to be twenty-five. He had a nice smile, Thomas told detectives.
Two of the mailers were recovered, the others having been discarded or recycled. Jason McGiver’s bore only his fingerprints. Frank Cassidy’s mailer retained his fingerprints and those of Booker Thomas and Davina Brown. The mailers themselves were standard, as were the labels bearing the names and addresses of the dead. Both mailers had barcodes and ribbons containing matching combinations of numbers and letters. Unable to make sense of the numbers and letters, the police forwarded them to the FBI for further analysis.
Extensive searches failed to produce a surviving copy of the contents. Davina Brown was interviewed by city, state, and federal authorities. She repeatedly stated the mailer contained a single sheet of paper. She had examined the mailer carefully, looking for contraband. Having no interest in the message itself, she directed Cassidy to hold the sheet upside down and shake it. Scanning the paper for signs of powder, Scotch taped pills, or lines of coke embedded between sheets, she did not recall if the paper contained a letterhead. Holding it up to light, she detected nothing hidden and told Cassidy he could leave.
A blank sheet of paper was found on Cassidy’s night table, leading some to speculate that the message had been printed in disappearing ink. But the blank sheet’s watermark matched that of a tablet in the drawer.
Albany informed the investigators that no messenger service named ZipEx was registered in the State of New York. The license plate, clearly visible in the Mutual Tower surveillance video, was counterfeit. The van itself provided a further puzzle. It was determined to be a 2020 Skåpbil Eco 200 manufactured by Svenska Motors in Malmö, Sweden. The model had proven unpopular and had been discontinued after a three-year production run and was never exported to the United States. Shipping records failed to show any deliveries of a 2020 Skåpbil Eco 200 to North America. License plate cams and surveillance videos only produced additional images of the van’s Monday route. Examinations of bridge and tunnel videos did not show the vehicle entering or leaving Manhattan for the previous three months. Homeland Security, after prompting by the Mayor’s Office, shared the results of its study, supplying high resolution videos and static shots of the van on March 21st. The van apparently appeared on the streets of Manhattan that Monday for eight hours and vanished. Investigations of car dealers, trucking companies, repair shops, garages, parking structures, custom shops, and chop shops revealed no trace of the Swedish van. Asked to assist, the public became fascinated. The white and blue van became the great white whale. Bar owners, tailors, music stores, hat shops, and retirees reviewed their surveillance and doorbell cams for images of the mysterious Eco 200. Bored parking lot attendants and gas station jockeys replayed hours of unseen recordings without luck.
The van’s appearance and disappearance remained a mystery. Some suggested it must have rolled out of and returned to a larger truck. But photos and videos of large trucks in Manhattan that day revealed no evidence of the blue and white Eco 200. Supernationalists discussed shapeshifting, black holes, and alien teleportations. The host of a History Channel car show racked up five million hits on YouTube demonstrating how quickly a van could be disguised. Alighting from a mockup of the Eco 200, he smiled, then peeled off the vehicle’s adhesive outer layer, revealing the truck underneath to be a green and gold airport shuttle bus with passengers waving from the windows. The Eco 200’s distinctive snub nosed hood with its slanted chrome Trapezium grille and diamond logo was nothing but a plastic cover hooked to the front of a Chevy Express. The “mystery van,” he declared, was probably back at work carrying passengers or delivering pizzas. If nothing else it could have easily escaped detection and been driven out of state to be sold, chopped, or dumped in a lake.
A Harlem podcaster branded the mysterious van and uniformed messenger a hoax. He was convinced the police had simply woven together a string of unrelated suicides with photoshopped pictures to divert attention from the systematic oppression of people of color. He was about to announce a demonstration in Columbus Circle when a black Muslim cabdriver called in, claiming he bumped into the van on 186th just before it disappeared. He had just dropped off a fare and was checking his phone. Letting his foot slip off the brake, the car rolled forward into the ZipEx van waiting at the stop sign. Both drivers got out to check for damage. Finding no dents and scratches, they both shrugged. “No harm, no foul,” the cabbie remembered the van driver saying. Asked if he recalled anything else, the cabbie noted that the messenger said it had been a long day and that his shift was almost over. Pressed further on the encounter, the cab driver remembered the messenger said something about it being a Monday.
The elusive blue and white van drew national attention. A St. Louis nonprofit contacted General Motors to change the paint scheme for the fleet of step vans intended for Elder Care to green and yellow. Federated Foods in Dallas added a red stripe to its blue and white trucks. The lines “the van blue and white/is coming tonight” were spraypainted in scores of high schools on the West Coast. DJ’s in Chicago, Milwaukee, Boston, Atlanta, and San Diego offered cash awards to anyone who could verify seeing the van in their town. People joking about killing themselves told friends they were ready to “take a Zip trip” or simply “Zip it.” The suicides themselves were dubbed Zippers.
A team of investigators, psychologists, and researchers was assigned to each of the eight suicides. The departed were of different races, ages, incomes, occupations, and lifestyles. Phone and email logs showed no contact between them. Photos and home videos were studied for faces of the other eight. Friends, neighbors, and coworkers were interviewed. The public was asked if they had ever seen two or more of them together. Searches of government, corporate, and personal files yielded a single thin connection. Frank Cassidy and Helen Bowman had attended the same high school but had graduated two decades apart.
Suicide experts examined their lives for the usual clues. Friends, coworkers, neighbors, and family members reported no mood changes, despondency, depression, withdrawal, or mentions of “ending it all.” None had records of previous suicide attempts. Those with underlying medical issues were in stable condition. None were in financial distress. Two, in fact, had reported elevated income from side hustles and Covid checks. None were in legal trouble. No one had outstanding warrants. Several misdemeanor charges against Frank Cassidy had been dropped when he agreed to treatment.
Speculation fueled suggestions of conspiracies, cults, alien abductions, and mass hysteria. Radio hosts fielded calls. Tip lines were flooded with messages. The van driver, someone suggested, hypnotized his victims. But Marian Newhouse and Frank Cassidy never saw the driver. A following caller suggested the mailer contained some kind of suicide drug. When the mailer was opened a powder or gas was released that drove them crazy. But Frank Cassidy opened his mailer under the nose of Davina Brown who inspected it closely and was not affected. A podcaster in Newark was boycotted after reminding viewers that the death van was blue and white, like the Israeli flag. Apologizing profusely the following day, she claimed she was only sharing what her hairdresser had told her. Numerologists weighed in, noting that Monday’s date was 3-2-1. Speaking from his megachurch, a Dallas televangelist pointed out that by adding the first three digits of their Social Security numbers and dividing by eight, you arrived at the Demonic 666. QAnon referred to the eight as “The Taken.” Psychologists and sociologists appeared on cable; psychics and astrologers appeared on podcasts. Everyone had questions. No one had answers.
Interest in that Monday tapered off before the month ended. Dr. Phil reminded Joe Rogan that families of homicide victims want action. They seek justice and demand the truth. Their grief turns to anger. They press the police to find the killer, they offer rewards, and hire private investigators. They arm themselves. They want revenge. They don’t want people to forget what happened to their loved ones. Families of suicide victims want peace. There is a shame to suicide. Their grief turns to denial, regret, and sometimes guilt. They don’t want to know the truth, fearing that investigations might reveal something untoward about the deceased. They want people remember their loved one’s life not their end.
As the weather warmed, attention turned to baseball and other important matters. The van was never seen again. The messenger was never found. The names of the eight faded from the airwaves. Investigators ran out of clues, and podcasters ran out of conspiracies. There was simply nothing left to say about that Monday in March, so like the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the last school shooting, it was soon forgotten.
Mark Connelly’s fiction has appeared in Indiana Review, Milwaukee Magazine, Cream City Review, The Ledge, The Great American Literary Magazine, Home Planet News, Smoky Blue Arts and Literary Magazine, Change Seven, Light and Dark, 34th Parallel, and Digital Papercut. He received an Editor’s Choice Award in Carve Magazine’s Raymond Carver Short Story Contest in 2014; in 2015 he received Third Place in Red Savina Review’s Albert Camus Prize for Short Fiction. In 2005 Texas Review Press published his novella Fifteen Minutes, which received the Clay Reynolds Prize.
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