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.
Herman P. Zweibeck was a regular guy. For example, every morning at exactly 6:15, he would, without fail, partake in a single arrowroot biscuit and a cup of Earl Grey tea with a paper-thin slice of lemon. At 10:00, he would have a cup of Kenyan tea with one teaspoon of honey, and at 3:15 every afternoon, he would have another cup of Kenyan tea and a single ginger biscuit. Lunch was often just a sliced banana on white bread. His evening rituals were even more specific and detailed. Herman was a hospital actuary; he believed in a place for everything and everything in its place. He was both scrupulously tidy, with everything correctly ordered and arranged, and neat, with everything in its correct place.
Herman’s official job was to develop financial models, but he found those trivially easy, and the bulk of his time was spent aiding the quality and safety team. They had seemingly no end of problems, and many were suitably complex to keep Herman happily occupied. He provided the technical oversight for the hospital ISO 9001, ITIl, and Lean Six Sigma quality assurance and process improvement programs. To address the diverse and varied quality programs at the hospital, Herman crafted an amalgam in which he pulled all the programs and approaches together under an overarching Operational Excellence program. He brought order to the myriad metrics, built a measurement library, and established data interoperability, so that the same metrics could be used consistently across all departments and programs. It was a masterpiece of data architecture. Almost as a hobby, he also helped do product analysis, and had samples for many different stock items which he and others in the team checked for quality and against any staff feedback or complaints.
Derk Wiggler was a transporter with had an unhurried and in-the-moment attitude toward life, the hospital, and his job. He was not wealthy enough to be debonair, but he certainly gave “suave” a run for its money. Derk mostly worked with the surgical teams, but sometimes circulated through the medical wards. When Derk wasn’t pushing people around in wheelchairs, on gurneys, or on morgue carts, he would be fetching things from one of the many supply rooms. He avoided the ICU because it gave him the creeps: the dim lights, the whoosh-click sounds of the machines, and the way the ICU staff glided about the place. To a lesser extent, he also avoided the neonatal unit. He quite liked the idea of browsing all the hot women who always seemed to orbit the ward, but the sight of babies made him nervous. He regularly visited the morgue, mainly just to say hi, maybe catch a bit of gossip about which surgeon messed up, and sometimes to play a quick game of cards. The morgue guys also often had a snort of bourbon to share, and they let him touch the corpses. What really got Derk’s excitement up, though, were the chances to score, as he put it. Derk was a player, and flirtation was one of the few things on which he expended serious energy to refine and execute. His most recent active liaison was with one of the student nurses on the thoracic surgery team. He was pretty sure it would lead to something real soon.
Herman was perturbed, distraught even. Many different metrics were showing disturbing signs of degradation and instability, and he was concerned that there was a special cause undermining the key metrics on his surveillance dashboard. Some metrics, like hospital acquired infections, were inching slowly up as data runs in his dashboard control chart. On-time surgical starts had some outliers and showed a growth in variation, bouncing between control limits in his chart. It made him very agitated. Herman ran cross correlations to see if he could spot a common link and started a root cause analysis process.
Over several days and weeks, the tools and dummy variables he established for the collection of oddities slowly converged on one specific surgical team more than any other group. There was something about that team, but also something external; something common to all areas, but more so to this one team. Herman analyzed their workflow data, their stores use, items on the surgical doctor’s preference list of tools, instruments, materials, equipment, and rooms, but there was still no obvious link. Eventually, he ran a correlation against the staff shift data, and narrowed a large amount of the variation to two people: a new surgeon and a student nurse. It accounted for something tangible, Herman thought, and he started watching them.
One autumn Wednesday, Herman observed the nurse sneaking a kiss with one of the transporters, and he followed them discretely. They disappeared into a supply room. Herman craned his neck trying to determine if they were perhaps eating, or vaping, or maybe breaking seals on supplies, and was aghast when he realized with a start that they were having sex. Herman reeled and needed to sit down in a nearby waiting area. This was so much worse than he could ever have imagined! The thought of their sticky bodies interlocked, all the touching and physical contact amongst the supplies, just made his head spin. At last, he caught his breath. He was almost calm when the supply room door opened and the transporter left. Herman followed him, saw him fetch a wheelchair and pick up a patient. He was touching the patient, and a thought exploded in Herman’s head: “He just had sex and didn’t wash his hands!” It was at that precise moment that Herman decided Derk must go.
Herman considered many ways to get rid of Derk, and although many options were subtle, even ingenious, they would simply take too long, the union might thwart some, and this filthy-handed grubby fornicator would in the meantime be putting his unwashed hands on door handles, equipment, and patients. It was simply intolerable. In the end, Herman simply walked up to Derk as he went into an elevator and stabbed him. The thrust was direct and powerful and angled upwards from just below the breastbone, with the sharpened tip passing through the diaphragm and ultimately entering the right ventricle of the heart. The profuse bleed caused a swift death from cardiac tamponade as the internal bleeding robbed the heart of space in which to fill.
Although Herman left few clues other than blood-spattered shoes, he knew it would not take long before they tracked him down. He simply went about his everyday business. The case proved to be more complicated, because the detectives found several boyfriends, husbands, ex-lovers, and other parties with motive to kill Derk. The only people who also had opportunity, such as ex-lovers, showed no physical evidence, or also had very weak motives. When the detectives finally knocked on Herman’s door, he was overjoyed. Sixty days had passed since the murder, and all the quality control charts had settled, improved, and were now better than when Derk had started work. Herman was exultant, and made no effort to hide the fact that yes, he, Herman Zweibeck, had permanently resolved the quality issue.