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 or similar sources 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.
Some people are nosy and pushy by nature, and some are nudged in that direction by their occupation or role. Billy had always been nosy and pushy. He was further encouraged by the culture around him, and self-selected into an occupation that encouraged being nosy, pushy, and a bully. Billy was a lieutenant with the city police and he had a good thing going.
Billy, and several others in his department, were part of a bonus scheme. The more citations issued and the more arrests they made, the higher the bonus payout was. They also qualified for a small percentage of any fines resulting from their work. The consultants that designed and recommended the scheme pointed to case studies and models that showed that bonus payments increased efficiency and performance. In practice, of course, what extrinsic rewards like bonuses did was encouraged them to focus on gaming the system to get higher bonuses and seek more extrinsic rewards, such as pocketing some of the things they confiscated. It wasn’t that they were bad cops; they just focused more on self-fulfillment.
Opal G. Otter, MD, was a toxicologist with a wild garden and a love of dogs. When Drs. Felix and Felicity Knochenzauberer reluctantly looked for another home for Bosco, the floofy white Great Pyrenees Mountain Dog, Opal eagerly took him. Bosco had been somewhat chonky before the Knochenzauberers had him, but regular walks, a doggy gym, and a better diet had trimmed Bosco down to a fit and muscular woofster.
He was, however, just too much for the young couple to manage and he needed more space. Opal lived on a three-acre plot, on which Bosco could run, dig, and chase miscellaneous bunnies, squirrels, and voles to his heart’s content. On the property were three gardens: the large spread of grassland and mostly indigenous flora, an enclosed herb and vegetable garden, and a locked garden that included a small hothouse.
On either side of the locked gate were panels from a Hieronymus Bosch painting, and over the top of the gate was an arch with a carved hardwood sign with faded lettering saying “The Garden of Deadly Delights.” It was an inside joke, a present from a previous year’s medical students who enjoyed her lectures and anecdotes about accidental poisonings. The locked garden was her private museum of rare and curious plants: some culinary, some medicinal, and some entertainingly poisonous. Her prize specimen was a small patch of Yartsa Gunbu mushrooms that were so rare and sought after that they could fetch as much as $63,000 per pound on the market. What Opal enjoyed explaining to the occasional visitor or group of students was that the mushroom had a gruesome and predatory life cycle. It started when the spores infected a ghost moth caterpillar, growing and consuming the caterpillar from within. The caterpillar would become mummified over winter, and in spring the fungus would blossom from the corpse. She also had a patch of Maitake, or “Hen-of-the-wood,” that ounce-for-ounce was the most flavorful mushroom in the world. Opal delighted in showing people around her special garden and saw it as an opportunity to dispel myths and correct misunderstandings about plants and mushrooms.
Lieutenant Billy Broom had seen Opal walking Bosco and had a plan. The fine for “at large” dogs was $100, and $1,000 more if it had no collar and license displayed. If the rabies token was not displayed, another $100 was added. Billy opened the outside garden gate and took a stroll over to where Opal was conducting one of her special garden tours. He overheard her talking about the mushrooms, and a slow smile spread across his face as a thought formed in his mind. As Opal moved to the water feature area, he caught snippets of her talk. Something about watercress and salad, then something about “… all parts of the plant …” and “… smells like carrots.” Billy was all smiles, eager to tag along to see the special garden, and was very impressed with the mushroom section. As they exited the locked area, Billy asked after Bosco. With a sinking feeling, Opal spotted the open gate leading to the street. “Oh, not again,” she muttered to herself, and with a perfunctory goodbye, jogged hastily to the street to see if Bosco was still close by.
Billy tapped his microphone and quietly asked one of his team members to find the big white dog, remembering to remove the collar immediately. This would be the third at-large dog without a collar today. Billy smiled at the thought, and then he returned to his earlier thought that some fancy mushrooms and the wild carrot watercress stuff would be welcome at the BBQ that night. He would get a big kick out of telling the guys about the $63,000 mushroom burgers they were eating. He took out a plastic evidence bag and ducked back into the special garden.
The BBQ was indeed memorable. Billy roasted the sliced-up carrots and mushrooms and flipped the bison burger patties while telling them his story about the mushrooms. The guys laughed about the $1,200 fine and furious “garden gnome lady” who had to fork out the cash to get her big white dog out of the pound. They were blown away by Billy’s story about their $63,000 burgers. They all toasted “the best damn burgers ever” and heartily tucked into the mushroom burgers and the wild greens. Billy had snacked on the greens while managing the BBQ, but was almost drooling in anticipation of the burger.
When they got to the whisky and cigar part of the evening, the truly memorable part of the BBQ began. It started with Billy feeling a bit of indigestion and getting up to go fetch a Tums. He collapsed on the kitchen floor and had a seizure while, outside on the patio, the others were raucously recounting the origin of the confiscated cigars and the way they had come to possess them. Over the next 10 minutes, they all began to experience symptoms from eating the roasted roots of the water hemlock that Billy had misunderstood to be “watercress wild carrot.” He had also misinterpreted the phrase “all parts of the plant” when he added the chopped leaves and young stems to his wild greens salad.
Someone had the presence of mind to dial 911, but the supportive care in the ED was unable to control the seizures, and the toxicologist on call was simply too late to make a difference. All five police officers received the ultimate bonus payment, a notable death that got headlines and a paper in a prestigious medical journal.