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.
Derek K.B.H. Talley was a pompous bully, a rampant misogynist, and a frightful bore. He was also a rudely wealthy man with a fear of germs and an array of unhealthy habits. His ownership of a chain of stand-alone EDs, investments in a diagnostics firm, and seat on the board of directors of a pharmaceutical company had provided him a comfortable lifestyle and little need for the niceties of kindness and consideration that regular people find necessary for a harmonious life.
Derek lived alone in a fifteen-bedroom wedding cake on a 12-acre hillside property that had a view of the river and the city lights. He did not much care for ornamental gardens or lawns, but was a big believer in high walls and large wrought iron gates that could keep out the riff-raff. At one point in his life, Derek had been a keen tennis player, golfer, and even invested energy in polo. That was a long time ago. Now, in his seventies, the tennis court was overgrown, he hadn’t touched the links in decades, and his polo horse was but a distant memory. Where he had been almost athletic as a young man, he was now mainly arthritic. He was also overweight, and indulged far too deeply in rich food, red wine, and Cuban cigars.
Cassandra E. Lewis, RN, was a retired ICU nurse. She took on a small number of patients for home visits to supplement her pension, but also because she just couldn’t stop. Of her patients, one was a charity case, one was a friend who didn’t have much time left, and two were wealthy old gentlemen who needed meds checked and a general eye on their health. She was a patient person, and mostly stoic and philosophical about the foibles of her patients, but she would only put up with so much. The most taxing patient was not the one with dementia, or the one with the complex chronic illness, but rather the rich old man in the big house. He paid handsomely but he was non-adherent more often than not and had exceptionally bad health habits. She accepted that a man with a compromised heart was having regular encounters with a sex worker. She could even understand that he might want a tot of whiskey after dinner, but she definitely didn’t approve of the cigars or the fatty roast meats and gravy he gorged on almost daily. Luckily, she was not aware of the salami, and the brie, Roquefort, and haloumi cheeses he enjoyed on most weekend nights.
Because of Derek’s compromised heart, Cassandra had taught everyone that came or went in the household to recognize the signs of a heart attack, and how to use the portable defibrillators she had made him buy. She put one upstairs in the master bedroom, one downstairs in the dining room, and one in the gymnasium. She had directed his purchase of several pieces of gym equipment to improve heart health, circulation, and general condition, but soon learned that buying equipment did not equal using it. He also ignored pretty much all her advice on cutting calorie intake and eliminating foods high in cholesterol or trans fats. She had some success, though, and at least managed to get lobster and crab off his diet, by cunning subterfuge. She slipped a documentary on crustacean parasites into his TV watchlist and made a pointed comment on seeing something “like lice” fall out of a basket of crabs, then backing that up by pondering how pubic lice had become known as “crabs.” The imagery successfully put him off crustaceans entirely. She had not yet discovered a way to make mutton and beef as unappetizing, but was ever watchful. Her focus was on keeping him on his medication and stress within limits.
Derek was an active tycoon, and his weekdays were crammed with meetings and plotting. He was active in steering the direction of his EDs and orchestrating steady vertical integration of emergency care. For example, he had already dominated the emergency medicine market in the region, captured various suppliers, such as labs and testing, and was well on the way to purchasing an ambulance company. The purchase would enable him to direct more patients to his own standalone emergency rooms and choke off traffic to competing points of care. He was not a gentle competitor. He used his money and influence to garner more influence, and used that with great effect to shape local government in a way that maximized his competitive advantages. Sometimes this got tense, and when he forced the closure of a local clinic by sneaky rezoning of their location, the CEO died by suicide. At his funeral, his widow had been inconsolable and had cursed Derek to hellfire and damnation. At the wake, she had discovered the bouquet and card sent by Derek’s public relations manager, and she had contemptuously tossed them both on the fire and stated that Derek had the blood of her husband on his hands. Other past competitors had been even less forgiving of his methods, and Derek had often used their outbursts of passion or unguarded moments to inflict further legal hardships on them. While his weekdays were full of the trench combat of business, he kept his weekends free, and Friday nights were Derek’s favorite time of the week. It was when he got the weekly report on his stocks, the night when he hauled out the best single malt whiskey, and the evening when Amber came to attend to him.
Amber was a blood donor, a fullback on the college soccer team, and a sex worker. When she dropped out of law and switched to a degree in psychology, her stiff-necked father had cut her study funds. His argument was that he didn’t oppose her studying to become a therapist, but he wouldn’t fund it. That, as far as he was concerned, was that. A number of financial and scheduling factors squeezed her, and the only job that ended up within her grasp was trading sex acts for money. Between a grant, her savings, a student loan, and the sex work, she could afford a shared flat within cycling distance of the campus and a modest social life. She tried to book clients far enough out of town that she was unlikely to ever meet someone she knew, but the old guy in the big house was an exception. He didn’t throw parties, and other than a nurse and a gardener, she never saw anyone else there. He paid well for the services he preferred, and he became her regular Friday evening booking.
The old guy wasn’t much up for straightforward sex, but he had rituals that she followed, and he paid well. He liked her to wear a Victorian corset, a bouffant blonde hairdo, and fetish shoes, and most of her time was spent just strutting about on the parquet flooring wearing “anti-gravity heel” pony boots. Massage was the core element of the session, and because he detested skin contact, his naked body was covered from neck to toes with a white linen sheet. Amber wore opera gloves. She used copious amounts of a sandalwood fragranced alcohol-based gel and gave him a full-body massage with frequent peeks at her corset-amplified cleavage, the clip-clop echoing of her shoes on the hardwood floors. The massage would culminate in a happy ending applied through the sheet, and then she had to pack and scoot before his sublime mood changed and her presence disturbed his enjoyment of a $5,000 bottle of Scotch and $500 cigars.
Tonight was Friday, but things were far from roses and sandalwood for Derek. His stock report was alarming, and there was a note from his business strategist that a young left-wing upstart had been elected to the town board. The money Derek had put toward his chosen candidate to replace the departed fossil who had acted on his behalf for decades had been wasted. The worse news was that the board would be reviewing zoning in a way that could only be bad for business. To top it all, a report on high costs of standalone EDs had been aired on TV, and now questions were being asked regarding his chain’s chargemaster rates. By the time Amber arrived, he was on his third whiskey, and he was in no mood for any parading. They went straight to the massage, but breaking the routine made it feel rushed and a little awkward for her. When it came time for the happy ending, there was a lack of the normal rigidity, and he erupted at what he termed her inadequacy and clumsiness. His temper spun up rapidly, and soon he was bellowing. Amber stood back, unsure of whether to just cut out and run or try to calm him down, but then he belched up some of the whiskey and clutched his chest in panic. Amber was in no position to distinguish between a heart attack and gastric reflux accompanying a panic attack, but she did remember the instructions that nurse, Cassandra, had given her. She dashed over to the defibrillator, turned up the room lights, switched on the machine, and trundled the little cart over as fast as she could. She followed the instructions as she had been told: apply the little sticky pads, press the button, and stand clear, but he just jerked, groaned, and went limp. She tried another couple of times, but then thought of her own position. The cops were not going to be tender with her while she stood around in a corset, fishnets, and fetish boots, and they were not going to be understanding about her work. Amber tossed her boots and gel bottle in her bag, pushed the machine back to its storage spot, and paused only long enough to slip on sneakers, unzip the side of the corset, and get her bicycle moving.
On Monday morning, the housekeeper opened the front door to a muggy and smoke-filled house. She cautiously went up the stairs to find a sight that was to be the most memorable of all her days. The tiny blue flame that the defibrillator had ignited on the soaked sheet had been invisible to Amber under the bright room lights. It had, however, been hot enough to get to subcutaneous fat before the alcohol gel had been used up. With the sheet acting as a wick, the fire had slowly spread over the body in little ripples, like eager but patient demons. Over the weekend, the flames had consumed Derek entirely but for his hands and feet, which the housekeeper now stared at with open mouth.
Since nothing but the body had been touched by the fire, and most locals already believed the worst of the old miser in the big house, rumors of “spontaneous human combustion” and devilry soon circulated. Police were not completely immune to the talk, and couldn’t see beyond the sheer gruesomeness and the fact that the only real clue was evidence of hoof prints on the waxed floor. The coroner didn’t know what to make of it either. The “body” that was delivered to her was nothing but a little pile of ashes, hands, and feet. She checked with the chief of police just to make sure before deciding it was an accidental death probably associated with excessive alcohol consumption and falling asleep while smoking. Many others were not blind to the fact that he had been cursed, that there were rumors of cloven hoof prints around the body, and that his guilty hands and trespassing feet were all that remained of him.