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.
Brett was an ill-tempered fusspot, and a manipulator. He had a pampered sense of entitlement originating from being a peevish only-child of wealthy parents, and it had been channeled, elevated, and amplified by a long career in medical administration. His job as the chief operating officer for a chain of clinics and care facilities gave him latitude for myriad little temper tantrums that were well camouflaged as attention to detail, high standards, and being meticulous.
Brett inflicted upon his own team, the facility caretakers, and especially the clinical staff, a constant barrage of micro-aggressions, but his chief aggression lay in cost control. Brett had annexed the quality improvement team and then wielded it like a sword—sometimes like an epee to poke holes in expenses, plans, and requests, and sometimes like a two-handed Scottish Claymore to slice budgets, programs, or roles. He had outsourced units, terminated programs, and deleted entire positions, all in the pursuit of improving raw profit. From the use of outsourced facility cleaning, to eliminating the staff on-call rooms, Brett’s cuts had made the “right” revenue ratios glow. He didn’t just attend to administrative items though; Brett rooted out the higher cost items in the in-house formulary and doctor’s preference cards and had eliminated medical director, librarian, and patient-care technician roles. His genius for cost control extended even to claw-back schemes, such as charging staff for scrubs, beverages, and parking. No detail was too fine to escape his microscope; from cheaper furniture polish for administration offices to cut-rate tissues and toilet paper on the lower floors.
Where Brett was scrupulous in rooting out potential cost savings in other people’s lives, he was affable and generous when it came to his own. His office, for example, was a virtual shrine to style and bureaucratic class. From the luxurious executive chair to the regal desk, his office exuded a sense of status, wealth, and prestige.
The desk itself was an altar to the preeminence of hospital administration and the power of the purse. An antique piece worthy of a past gilded age, the serpentine mahogany desk was an example of fine stately curves, elegant fluting, and craftsmanship in superbly executed English dovetails and French polish. The 5-piece desktop furnishings had alone cost nearly $5,000 and came with a gold Cross pen and pencil set in a mahogany and marble holder that pointed them at the sky like little missiles of domination. The bedrock of the ensemble was a 22×17 inch hand-tooled cordovan leather desk pad that featured a compartment for an engraved letter opener styled after the misericord daggers used during the high Middle Ages to dispatch wounded knights through the gaps in their armor.
Sitting at this same desk, Brett had used these instruments to perform the coup de grace upon many wounded projects and budget requests, often acquiring some items from them as they expired. He had many keepsakes from terminated projects. Some useful, such as a large screen monitor from a bed management system pilot, some now merely decorative, like a locator system reader, now used as a bookend.
The review of contract renewals was an opportunity to squeeze a little bit more out of subcontractors, such as the cleaning contract last month. The day before their meeting, Brett had looked underneath his desk pad and grinned because there was a hair under the pad. Brett had insisted on the previous contract containing a stipulation that desks in the executive suite had to be polished weekly and had secreted a hair under his desk pad the previous week to check if this was being done. He used an array of similar measures to find reasons to complain and have leverage during contract renegotiation. He had used three examples with which to bludgeon the cleaning contractor and prevent an annual inflation while securing additional services at no cost.
This week, it was the turn of the HVAC contractor, and as a first move, Brett complained to the on-site technician about the airflow to his office being too low. The technician spent hours adjusting vents and registers and increasing airflow, but now the vent in Brett’s office was blowing directly in his face when he was at his desk. This gave him dry eyes and was another reason to complain. The technician had endured similar cycles with Brett and knew exactly where this was headed. However, being in his final contract year before mandatory retirement, he simply suggested that Brett either move his desk or wear a baseball cap.
Brett felt a mixture of rage and glee at this proposal. Rage, because of the sheer impudence of the man, but glee because the impertinent suggestion and lack of customer service would be an excellent lever to keep the price down. Glee won the day, but Brett could eventually not bear the effect of the dry air on his contact lenses. After carefully placing sheets of paper on the desk pad, Brett removed his hand-made Italian loafers, and climbed on his desk. He stretched up to reach the vent louver, with the intention of tilting it away from his desk. It shifted slightly under pressure from his outstretched fingertips, but then stopped. Brett lurched up on his tiptoes to give it just one more shove.
At this point, a chatty demon might have observed on the folly of using a silicone polish and microfiber cloth when buffing a desktop. But the demon wasn’t around to warn Brett, and physics instead had a word. The newly polished desktop gave scant friction to the desk pad, which responded to Brett’s lurch by sliding out from under his stockinged feet like a drawer with a fresh dusting of French talc. The desk pad hit the leather chair and sent it spinning, and Brett hurtled down chest-first onto the sturdy marble pen and pencil holder. True to the manufacturer’s word that their pens were robust, the sleek gold-plated pen withstood the abuse, and penetrated his sternum without breaking, while the equally well-designed pencil slid almost effortlessly through his second intercostal space.
While Brett lived his life by the budgetary sword, his death proved the literal pen to be the mightier.