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.
Freddy was a security officer at the Metropolitan Mercy nonprofit hospital in the city center. Like many others doing the security work at the Met, Freddy was a college student. The security job gave him health benefits, time for classes at the theology college, and enough money for class fees and food. Freddy intended to make a career in pastoral care and tend to the spiritual needs of patients, especially those in hospice.
The security job was undemanding work and mainly consisted of clocking the staff in and out, keeping an eye on the security cameras, and recording humidity and temperature readings every 2 hours. In practice, the shift teams divided up the work so that each got some sleep during the 6 PM to 6 AM shift. In between those tasks, there was plenty of opportunity to do assignments, finish prescribed readings, and study for exams.
During the new security officer orientation, each member was given a tour of the facility. Each contractor group focused on their own area of operations. The HVAC contractor showed them the huge chiller units and associated plumbing located in passageways surrounding the computer room and laboratory facilities. The fire systems contractor led them past the 30-ton carbon dioxide tank and explained how this would be emptied into the computer room or lab in case of a fire.
The orientation included being shown how to don the self-contained breathing apparatus in order to sweep the computer room or lab for laggards in case the CO2 had trapped them. It also included a trip to the extraction fan room, which evoked knowing glances and winks from some of the older officers.
Kelly, the fire system contractor, inserted a special key in a grey box to the side of the door and threw a breaker switch before unlocking the heavy doors and showing the curious new hires inside. The room was dominated by two fans facing louvered shutters that opened to the outside of the building. Freddy guessed that the red striped fan blades were each at least 8 feet long. The grey electric motors were bigger than anything he had seen before.
Kelly explained that after the CO2 put out any fire, the fans would automatically start, and pull the gas out of the building. She pointed out how the louver slats were automatically controlled. Freddy squeezed closer to the big fan blades to get a better look and bumped against a little pole set in the concrete floor. An alarm sounded, and one in a row of red lights lit up on the control panel.
Kelly sighed and rolled her eyes at Freddy while she stabbed a button that silenced the alarm. She unscrewed a little glass dome on top of the pole and picked up a steel ball the size of a marble and held it up for all to see.
“This is what triggers the vibration sensor.” Kelly described how the ball dropping onto a circular platform was how the system detected if a dangerous imbalance existed in the fan, and to shut it down before it tore itself loose. She replaced the steel ball on the top of a little cupped pillar and reset the alarm.
“OK, so, look around. No dust, no cobwebs, right?” Kelly explained that at six in the morning and six in the evening each day, the extraction system self-tested by opening the louvers and running the fans for 3 minutes. “You really don’t want to be in here when that happens. The fans probably won’t suck you in, but it’s going to be noisy and very windy, and dangerous.” Kelly paused and gestured at Freddy with her pen for emphasis “These are automated controls, and you can lose your life if you don’t pay attention, right Freddy?”
Life soon became a comfortable routine for Freddy. On weekdays, he attended classes, and 5 nights a week, he spent at the Met. One of the older crew showed the new recruits some of the tricks and shortcuts. One trick was how to get computer room staff badges ready ahead of time, so it wasn’t such a madhouse when their shifts changed. Another was to use the service elevator at the back, and then walk around the computer rooms using the air conditioner passageways. This cut a lot of time during rounds because they could bypass the multiple computer room security doors.
The third trick was the best. In theory, each shift had three people, but after hours it was quite easy to handle the work with two—one doing rounds and one in the control room. The third person could go down to the fan room and sleep. It was quiet, dust-free, and nobody other than the security staff and the fire contractors even knew it existed. There was a bedroll hidden behind the fan room control panel, a towering set of grey metal cabinets that housed the electrical and control systems to run the louvers, fans, and fire-detection systems.
On one Thursday night, nearly 6 months after joining, it was Freddy’s turn to sleep from midnight to five. He was worried about an exam on Friday morning, so instead of sleeping directly, Freddy reviewed his notes and browsed some of the passages he had marked out with little yellow page tabs. By 2AM, Freddy felt more confident and put the last of the seven textbooks on a pile next to the bedroll. He switched off his headlamp, removed it, and was asleep before his head hit the pillow.
With a sudden start, Freddy woke and looked at his watch. Traffic noise was louder than it should be, he thought in a panic. He had overslept. It was 05:53, and he had 7 minutes to be at the control room for roll call and shift change. He hurriedly dressed, stowed the bedroll, and scampered out, still tucking in a shirttail with one hand while trying to clamp his books under the other arm. He bumped into the doorway in his hurry, and his books scattered across the floor. With a very mild swearword, Freddy gathered up his books and hurtled out of the fan room.
Freddy made it to the control room with seconds to spare and, hiding behind the throng of colleagues from both shifts, put his books down and did up the last two buttons on his shirt. “Glad you could make it, I was starting to worry,” whispered Jake at his side and then pushed past to complete formalities.
Having called roll, Jake was about to hand off to the new shift when an alarm sounded, and a red light lit up on the main panel. The annunciator panel read “Fan Imbalance.” Freddy looked sharply at his little pile of textbooks on the control room desk. Six books. Freddy blurted out, “I’ll go check” and started back to the fan room at a jog.
Freddy knew exactly what had happened. He had left with seven books and arrived with six. When the fan self-tested at 6AM, the missing book had been sucked up by the fan and tripped the vibration sensor. Freddy’s Oxford Companion to the bible lay scattered across the floor in a dozen pieces, and having tripped the vibration sensor, the giant fans were stationary. Freddy groaned; it was a library book. Hastily gathering up pieces, Freddy made his way to the vibration sensor.
Like he had seen Kelly do, Freddy unscrewed the little glass dome, picked up the steel marble, and put it back on top of the slightly cupped pillar. Freddy bent quickly to retrieve a last piece of his book lying under the fan and had barely enough time to register the loud click of the motor actuator before a blade hit his elbow. The blow unbalanced him and pitched him head-first into the path of the blades. By the time the vibration sensor tripped again and stopped the motor, Freddy was beyond earthly cares about oversleeping, exams, or damaged library books.