This is one of a collection of stories that are like “Final Destination” meets “The Monkey’s Paw” (W. W. Jacobs, 1902). As such, they are tragedies more than either mysteries or horror, and would appeal most to readers who enjoy the inexorable pull of a story arc that leads to doom. In each story, a protagonist makes a wish that comes true with fatal results for someone, often the person making the wish. Nothing supernatural, but just how things work out. (Or is it?) The technical details surrounding the fatal (or near-fatal) event are drawn from real cases in the US OSHA incident report database and are therefore entirely realistic even if seemingly outlandish. The plots draw lightly from cultural beliefs around actions such as pointing at someone with a stick or knife, wishing in front of a mirror, or stepping on a crack.
Robert Barker was a police sergeant level II and commanded a small team of officers in a somewhat run-down, peri-urban county. Bob had made slow progress through the ranks in his 20 years with the department but felt that promotion to lieutenant was now within reach. The trick, he reckoned, was more drug busts.
However, he had another hurdle to clear first. His team was vying for last place in marksmanship. The latest scores had drawn an acid comment from the chief, who remarked that their shooting was going to get a cop killed. “Probably me,” Bob had muttered to himself, reflecting on the dismal performance.
Bob didn’t just carry a sidearm as a matter of duty, but also had a collection of private guns, including some exotic antiques like a 1918 Webley-Fosbery self-cocking revolver in .455″. He enjoyed shooting so much that reloading came naturally and expanded the enjoyment while reducing the cost. A further cost saving was due to his police duties taking him to places that time and municipal code had forgotten. Places where the odd lead pipe from ancient plumbing could be taken without any objections. Melting the lead and picking the tin and antimony levels gave Bob great creative control over bullet weight, design, and hardness, and he owned at least ten bullet molds in various calibers.
Bob encouraged his team to get in as much range time as possible, and far more than the mandatory three times a year required by the department. The problem was a lack of places to shoot. The only local range had closed down a few years back, the city range was crowded and expensive, and city ordinances were such that they couldn’t just go a few miles out of town and shoot in the woods.
Bob had a creative solution in mind. He lived on five acres of mostly unimproved land, and his neighbors were equally enthusiastic about shooting. He called in a few favors with contacts in the roads department, and they unloaded three used, pre-stressed, split-box concrete culverts. Each inverted U-shaped concrete half stood 8 ft high and 12 ft long. As a special favor, the driver used the crane to place the three box culverts in a row, forming a 36ft tunnel.
Bob borrowed a small front loader to push earth up to make an embankment wall at the end of his tunnel, and to cover the sides and most of the roof with earth. After three weekends of work, Bob had a workable “indoor” range, and he invited his team and a few friends to help finish it off and try it out. With power tools and spare lumber, eight of them spent most of a Saturday fitting doors at the open end of the tunnel, installing a backstop of old tires in front of the embankment, and building in two shooting booths and a table. The last thing to do was to string up some lighting and add a small fan to coax the smoke out.
They celebrated with a few hundred rounds, a few beers, and a steak barbeque, in that order. At the end of the day, they had a perfectly usable range that was close, convenient, and custom made for their needs and schedules. The range was also a convenient place for reloading, and the table doubled up as a reloading bench, as well as a place to cast, resize, and swage bullets.
Within 2 months, Bob and his team were averaging 200-300 rounds each per week, and when the next departmentally mandated range time trundled along 4 months later, it showed. Bob’s team jumped from their historical fourth place to first, by a clear margin. A month later, they also took the 2nd place regional trophy. The extra practice made them much better shots, but surprisingly, the far greater handling had not made them that much more dexterous with their weapons. There was initial improvement, but of late, Bob noticed small things cropping up—dropped magazines, fumbling during loading and field stripping, and the guys just seemed clumsy somehow. Bob thought of increasing the practice sessions and adding some one-on-one training, but the team seemed a bit jumpy, irritable even. The stress seemed to be making them a little more distracted and forgetful. They needed success, he thought, not more practice.
With management aware of his team’s improvements, Bob became more eager for opportunities to get a slice of drug traffic. Based on a tip-off, surveillance of the local big box store parking lots for drug users eventually paid off, and a few small arrests triangulated their attention on what looked like bigger shipments. At last, after 3 more weeks, they got a solid lead on a heroin shipment due to be distributed to local dealers. That Wednesday morning saw the team staking out a corner of a strip mall parking lot just off the interstate highway. Being a little more practiced at shooting than the logistics of drug busts, they sprang into action just a tiny bit too soon, and the driver of the 5-ton box truck delivering the drugs, hit the gas, and tried to make a run for it while the unloading was just starting. Boxes toppled out the back of the truck, and dealers and plastic bags of white powder scattered in all directions. As Bob and his team approached at a sprint, the loader in the back of the moving truck threw out a box that burst among them, covering their boots and legs in white powder.
After much yelling, wrestling, and a volley of (well-aimed) shots, the truck was stopped, six suspects cuffed, and the crime scene taped off. To Bob’s delight, the drug test kit gave a positive result from a sample of the powder, but his joy was short-lived. When the apprehended suspects admitted that the powder was Fentanyl, possibly the far more potent Carfentanyl, Bob’s joy turned to apprehension, and then fear. Hearing the news, his team seemed paralyzed, unsure what to do next. Police Dispatch reacted swiftly to the information, sending ambulances and paramedic response teams, and advised Bob to get the Naloxone from their first aid kits and be ready in case anyone on the team showed signs of overdose.
The team squinted in the bright sunlight at the unfamiliar Naloxone inhalers, while Bob’s normally strong and commanding voice was a bit shaky as he read out the possible symptoms of Fentanyl overdose. While they waited for the paramedics, the team monitored each other closely for shallow breathing, confusion, small pupils, and pale skin or blue lips.
Dr. Ryan Marino was the head of toxicology, and on his way to an HR meeting took a shortcut past the ED. He had barely made it past the big double doors when an authoritative voice stopped him in his tracks “Oy, Toxo, I have a cluster case for you, … Fentanyl Exposure.” Dr. Choo, the ED director, held her arm out, offering him a tablet PC. She listed out the major features—six police officers on a raid came into contact with plastic bags of white powder identified as Fentanyl. “Their chief complaints include …,” she paused and looked at him with what could have been a smirk, “racing heart, chest pains, breathing difficulties, sweatiness, …” her voice grew solemn “… and they feel confused, weak, and have a sense of impending doom.”
Ryan joined the ED team in examining the distraught police officers. After surveying each of them and performing some basic neurological tests, Ryan stepped back and spoke to the group. He explained that they were not suffering from a Fentanyl overdose and had no reason for concern on that score.
“But my fingers are tingling and I feel dizzy!” one of the officers blurted out. “I TOUCHED the powder!” another said emphatically. Ryan rolled his eyes and took a deep breath. “Guys, I hear you, but Fentanyl is a crystalline opioid, not magic. You can’t get it into your bloodstream by handling it or even rubbing it all over your naked bodies, and you certainly can’t get an overdose by touching a bag of it and getting it on your shoes.”
Ryan explained that what they were feeling was a panic attack, brought on by a large dose of misinformation, an environment of fear, and a lack of healthy perspective. “However, …” Ryan paused, lifting one of the nearest officer’s hands, and then peering closer at his eyes, “I would like to order some additional tests before you are discharged.”
“Irritable, not alarmed,” he thought as he wrote up orders for bloodwork.
Ryan was not satisfied, and he discussed his thoughts with Dr. Choo. “There is something meaningful going on with these guys. I just can’t put my finger on it, but they were jumpy in a way that didn’t make sense at all for opioids and didn’t quite match amphetamines either.” Dr. Choo looked up, “… and clumsy. Did you notice that? Some dropped the pens we gave them to fill in their details, and one nearly bumped over the water fountain.” Ryan thought about what recreational or performance-enhancing drug a police officer might be experimenting with, but none quite matched this picture. He shrugged, the HR meeting was long past, and he had patients to see, charting to do, and students to mentor. He made a mental note to say something about police training on Naloxone and the non-danger of Fentanyl “exposure” and hurried back to his office.
The drug bust was a mixture of satisfaction and irritation to Bob, and to clear his mind, he went to his range and fired off a box of handcrafted ammo. He noticed that he was down to a single box and decided to spend the evening casting bullets and reloading. He fired up the propane burner, put the smelting pot on, and dropped in chunks of lead pipe. A few missed the pot, and rolled under the table, and Bob had to go on hands and knees to retrieve them. After a few minutes, their dull grey sheen turned silver as they melted and flowed. Bob fumbled with another container and added half a bar of solder and a small piece of antimony to increase hardness and stirred the liquid metal.
The next morning, Ryan saw the bloodwork results in his inbox. Flipping through the tests he had ordered, there were four pages of nothing. He stopped, frowning. He paged through the next patient, and the next, a slow-creeping dread filled him. He paged through Bob’s. Of all the results, every test was negative, except for one, and that one was so high that he reached for the phone to confirm with the lab. The symptoms all made sense now. “But how?” he wondered to himself, “how does a whole group of police officers breathe in lead like they had worked in a foundry their whole lives?”
By the time the patrol car got to Bob’s plot, the propane had long since run out, the smelting pot was cool, and the lead had solidified as a flat sheet at the bottom. Bob lay cold and rigid on the floor, no longer worried about promotion or shooting skills.