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.
Gus worked in administration at a rural hospital built in the hills where, a century before, there had been a gold rush. The small town had emerged in response to a horde of eager prospectors and their need for everything from blue jeans and whiskey to digging equipment and explosives. For a dozen years, the town was a boiling mass of activity. It imploded when the gold ran out, and the miners and their needs migrated further west.
Many of the older buildings incorporated in the hospital had been mining offices or shops, and there were parts of the grounds where signs warned people not to walk on the grass and fences discouraged wandering about. This was not so much to prevent wear and tear on the grass, but to avoid the risk of anyone stepping into an old mining trench, or falling down an old mine shaft. With a lack of record keeping and a free-for-all on digging during the gold rush, hundreds of trenches several feet deep were carved into the earth, and dozens of shafts were excavated. Some shafts were sloped tunnels in the sides of hills, and some were almost vertical and dozens or hundreds of feet deep. Many had filled with water, and some were covered with planks or steel sheets and piles of earth. The fact was that almost anywhere on the hospital grounds, one might be standing on a few inches of soil, a corroded steel plate or rotting timbers, and a drop of a hundred feet or more.
Many years back, the story went, a pair of lovers were having a picnic under the shade of a spruce. The groundskeeper yelled at them to leave the area and retrace their way back to the paved path, but they couldn’t hear him or didn’t listen. He went over to warn them, but just as he got within earshot, he fell through the cover of a shaft and fell to his death right in front of them. The story was that the lovers had just decided to marry when the accident happened, and it so shook them that they soon parted.
Not one to be a slave to the rat race of corporate work, Gus had acquired an obsession. It started with trying to build a bird house while on vacation. He had been given a book of 101 woodworking projects by the rest of the administrative staff to celebrate his 30th anniversary of employment and his 50th birthday. As much as he loved tinkering with wood, he found that cutting the 45-degree angles by eye with a blunt saw led quickly to blisters, cuts, and disappointingly skew joints. A YouTube video or two later, and he was convinced that he needed a miter saw. The saw and its laser marker so revolutionized his experience of woodworking that he bought a table saw. Soon the air was fragrant with wood dust, and cutting precise and smooth angles was a cinch. He bought a sander to improve the finish of his burgeoning list of woodworking projects and a bandsaw for intricate shapes. As his abilities and interests grew more complex, his taste in wood grew from plain to exotic. It didn’t take long before he had long-term plans for a jointer, a table router, and a lathe. The level of investment in time, attention, and money angled steeply upward and pushed against the boundaries of his income.
Gus and two other clerks were selected to take on a “special project” to trace missing patient records and assemble connections to the EHR system. They were bundled off to a remote part of the campus and put into a small cluster of single-story offices that were reputedly the remains of the original mine administration block. Barbara had objected strongly that they were now on entirely the opposite side to the cafeteria. Initially, Gus also took this as a bad thing, but the almost total lack of bugs was welcome. In their previous office, they were in a constant battle with roaches and mice, but these old mine offices seemed immune. Gus and Nancy put it down to being so far from any sort of food waste. Barbara grumbled that the mice never bothered her, and being so far from anywhere was unacceptable.
Barbara was the first to quit. Walking nearly a mile to the cafeteria was apparently too much to bear, but it was likely that she had simply realized that their task was futile, what anthropologist David Graeber may have called a “bullshit job.” Nancy enjoyed the work, but her husband had recently retired and they were moving to Florida. Gus plodded along on his own, searching, matching, batching, and dispatching. Occasionally another dusty box of records arrived, and he would add it to a pile in one of the rooms.
Selling his various carpentry products on eBay took a fortuitous turn when some bidders failed to distinguish between his replicas of antiques and authentic articles, pushing up the price. Gus shifted into restoring damaged or broken quasi-antiques. On a whim (as he told himself), he took one of the old wooden office desks home, restored it, and put photos up on eBay to see what interest there might be. “Antique gold mine clerk’s desk” got a flurry of bidders, and before he knew where he was, it had sold for nearly $800. Gus was shocked and alarmed, and spent the next week fretting in a state of panic that he would be found out and fired, or worse. It took a month before Gus started putting his replicas back on eBay, but he got continued enquiries about more mining furniture.
As guilty and trepidatious as Gus felt, the money from the desk had financed a length of fine walnut planking and several good quality router bits. He took a coat stand and a wooden chair home, restored both, and brought the chair back to the office. After several days, he put the coat stand on eBay, and it sold within an hour. His sense of panic rushed back, but was overtaken within a week by a curiosity over what else was in these remote old offices. Gus inventoried the rooms and made an exciting discovery: There was a hidden office at the end of the cluster. When he moved an old metal filing cabinet, he found a locked door that clearly led to another room. Gus went around the outside of the building and saw that it backed up against the side of a large embankment. The room he found was windowless and literally halfway inside the earth mound. Excited by his discovery, and eager to see what undisturbed treasures might be inside, he searched for the key to the mysterious door.
The secret room occupied his every waking moment and even intruded in his dreams. In his dreams, it was filled with period pieces from the last century. Brass fittings, mahogany desks, gold and marble inkwells, and an ivory door handle flitted through his nightly travels, and Gus woke tired and distracted. He tested every key he could find, tried every trick on YouTube, and still the solid door with the brass handle and kick plate barred his entry. The idea came to him in one of his dreams, and Gus hurried to work as soon as the sun was up. Using a putty knife slipped between the door and frame, Gus soon confirmed the dream; the door wasn’t locked, but stuck. The catch retracted when he turned the old brass handle, but the bolt was already retracted.
Over the next week, whatever time Gus could spare was focused on getting the door open. He had soon discovered that mud had seeped under the door, and there was a layer of mud maybe an inch or slightly more on the floor behind the door. Gus painstakingly scraped mud out using a wire hook, making slow but steady progress. Gus stayed as late as he dared, not wanting to attract any attention from security or maintenance staff, and on the third night, he had cleared away any mud within reach. The door was still stubbornly stuck. Looking closely at salt crystals dotting the wood, he realized that it had swollen somewhat at the bottom from contact with the mud, and he used a hacksaw blade to carefully whittle away the wood that was pressing against the frame. His hands blistered and bleeding, he carefully slid a prybar between the door and frame, and tried levering it open.
The door finally gave enough for more excavation of old dry mud. Over the next day, Gus made enough progress to get his head around the door and shine a flashlight into the dark room. The far wall had collapsed and he could see a desk that had been crushed. As expected, the floor was buried in nearly two inches of dried mud, but the room was crowded with office desks and chairs, and a wall to his right was lined with shelves filled with books and what looked like cake tins. To the left was a cupboard. With further removal of mud and some heaving, the door was open enough for him to squeeze in.
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The trove was almost every bit like his dreams, and in a few months, Gus had repaired, cleaned, and got top dollar for the furniture in the hidden room. The cupboard itself netted just over a grand, and Gus felt none of the guilt or nerves that the hospital furniture had evoked in him. This was, after all, abandoned property of a long-defunct gold mining company. Once he was done with all the carpentry, he was left with the leather-bound ledgers, an assortment of brass and silver instruments, office equipment, and various objects whose purpose still escaped him. He figured he would need to do further research on the books, but could get started on a pair of scales and a large brass mortar and pestle.
The scales and mortar set had been at the bottom of the cupboard and were coated in grime. Salt crystals had sprouted from the brass amongst thick patches of green corrosion. Surfing the Web yielded the suggestion to use gasoline, ammonia, or horticultural vinegar to clean off the crud. Gasoline would be cheapest, but Gus thought that the fire hazard was too high. Ammonia was way too stinky, which left the vinegar, which was not flammable, not too expensive, and less aggressively stinky. Gus sat down at the kitchen table and liberally applied warm vinegar to the green patches and thick bed of salt crystals coating the inside of the large brass mortar. He was pleased to see the crystals instantly fizz and melt away. Three seconds later, though, Gus fell backwards off his bar stool, convulsing even before his body hit the ceramic floor. The cloud of hydrogen cyanide gas released from the crystals rapidly sent Gus into a coma, and within a minute, his heart had permanently arrested. The leaching process that had leaked cyanide into the hidden room nearly a century before had persisted all that time in killing off insects, mice, and now, an enthusiastic DIY restorer called Gus, whose rat race was over.