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.
Harrold Graham Archibald Fletcher was the poster child for the word lugubrious. Harry looked the very picture of sad and dismal. From his heavy old brown shoes to his creased jowls and rumpled hat, Harry radiated weariness and caution. Harry was indeed a cautious man, not given to flights of fancy or thrill seeking, and he did everything slowly and methodically. He was a nice man, really, but drove everyone around him quite batty. “Not as fast as an arrow, but easily as big a pain in the butt,” was one wisecrack’s riff on Harry’s surname. Harry’s work was always neat, accurate, and careful. It was also very slow. Harry worked at a military hospital doing maintenance work and occasional equipment repairs. He was far from retirement age but also far closer than anyone else in the workshop or his chain of command. Even the hospital director was slightly younger than Harry.
In his latest assigned work order, Harry was asked to create a fence around a granite commemorative statue for Veterans Day. Nothing too fancy, but it would feature several 105 mm howitzer rounds linked by a chain. The Chief Medical Officer had requested the memorial and had already procured the seven 105 mm projectiles and matching shell casings from the adjoining army base. Harry read the work order and diagrams and started writing down the method he would use and associated equipment and material he would need to draw from stores. Harry itemized a drill press, drill bits, a tap to thread the holes, threaded eye bolts, chain sections, and paint. Harry reviewed the requestor’s comments. Quick job, they noted; it needed to be finished same day so it would be ready for a Veteran’s Day parade.
Jeff, the workshop foreman, looked over the worksheet that Harry had filled in and signed off all the materials and equipment use. Harry had questions.
“Well, ” Harry began, “Not so sure about drilling into a bullet.”
Jeff made a mental sigh, “Not a bullet, it’s an artillery round.”
“Not happy about drilling into no round neither,” replied Harry evenly.
“They’re inert,” Jeff tried.
“Well, not worried if it’s lying still, still a bomb innit?”
Jeff explained patiently that inert meant it had no explosives and suggested that the projectiles were probably filled with cement.
Harry was still not so sure and said so.
“Look, its painted blue. Blue means its inert, empty, nonexplosive.”
Harry was apologetic, but unconvinced.
In exasperation, Jeff called the adjoining base armorers, but they couldn’t say over the phone, and the staff sergeant on duty offered to come look.
An hour later, he arrived at the workshop and inspected the rounds and nodded, confirming Jeff’s explanation. “Green means live, blue means inert nonexplosive practice rounds.” The armorer had brought a thick manual in a dark blue binder and showed Harry a picture and a table. “Blue means inert,” he grinned through a thick moustache, and left.
Jeff gave Harry a bit of a lecture, mainly about Harry being too slow, and in Jeff’s view, somewhat obstinate. “I’m getting tired of shielding you, Harry. Every time you overrun on a job, it’s me that catches the flak. You are going to be the bloody death of me, you know.”
By the time the armorer had come and gone, the materials and equipment stores had closed for lunch, so to avoid antagonizing Jeff further, Harry spent the time carefully marking on the rounds where he would drill his holes and fit the threaded eyebolts.
Shortly after lunch, Harry sloped over to the stores to draw materials and equipment. His first item was a larger vice for the drill press so he could hold the rounds steady and get a straight and accurate hole. Harry was friends with the sergeant major that managed the stores. SGM Martta Kelly looked at his list. “What do you want the oversize vice for? Drilling out your ears?” Martta was almost as old as Harry and had spent a lifetime managing stores, handling odd requests and squeezing the best service out of suppliers. On the whole, she preferred her cats to people but tolerated Harry because he reminded her of a big lazy calico tomcat she once had. Martta probably knew the rack location of every one of the 15,138 items she had in stock, from tiny castellated lock nuts to a 12 ft. high digger.
Harry explained about the Howitzer rounds, and Martta frowned, “That doesn’t sound safe. Sure you want to do that?” Harry described the episode with the armorer and that if Jeff says it’s inert, then he should maybe just do as he was told. Martta shrugged, “It’s your funeral, Harry,” and jogged off to various racks to pick his items. Martta had held the base record for the 2.4 km and five-mile fitness tests and always placed in the annual marathons. She rather enjoyed using the vast stores as her personal jogging track. As she zipped from shelf to shelf, Martta reflected on Harry and his shells. It would be a really good murder plot, she thought, like one of those true-crime stories she enjoyed on rainy evenings, with a cat on her lap and a cup of coffee chip ice-cream in her hand. The image of ice-cream triggered a thought, “I bet he forgot cutting fluid.”
Martta picked the ¼-inch threaded eye bolts, a ¼-inch tap for cutting a matching thread and put them down on the counter in front of Harry. Harry picked up an eye bolt and the tap and lined up the threads on the eye bolt to the tap, just to make sure. “Oh, such a fusspot,” said Martta. “Slow but sure, double check and crosscheck,” answered Harry. Martta queried if he had drills and cutting fluid. That was one thing about Martta. No matter how detailed a materials list was, Martta would help you spot things that you hadn’t thought of that would require a return trip to stores.
“Now what paint did you have in mind?” she asked. Did you want silver for the chains and green for the rounds, or did you want to do the whole thing black?” They spent the next 20 minutes discussing the artistic merits vs historical accuracy. Harry settled on accuracy, with green for the projectile, black for the casing, and silver for the chains and eyebolts.
“Now, how are you going to anchor the casing to the concrete plinth?” she asked. Harry decided on a threaded stud, so he also needed to draw the studs, a tungsten masonry bit, a hammer drill, and a 15-amp extension lead.
By the time they had finished, the afternoon 3:15 whistle blew. “Oh lord, I am going to catch it in the ear!” Harry grimaced. This was supposed to be a quick job, and it had dragged out all day with no obvious signs of progress.
Harry hurried back to the workshop and got to work fitting the vice. He clamped the first blue painted round, checked his markings 4 inches from tip, and using a center punch, whacked a neat divot to give the drill purchase and allow him to line the point up accurately. Harry lined up the round using the crank handles on the vice and drilled a pilot hole with a 1/8-inch bit. Satisfied with it, Harry changed bits and started drilling the larger hole.
“It’s green,” Harry said from the doorway to Jeff’s office.
Jeff looked up and sighed audibly.
“What’s green, Harry?”
“The paint is green under the blue,” Harry clarified, “I’m not sure this is right.”
Jeff put down the paperwork about cost reductions he had been reading and wearily walked through to the workshop.
Jeff looked closely at where a little piece of blue paint the size of a match head had flaked off when the drill bit had begun its job of tunneling into the casing. He scraped away a bigger area with a screwdriver tip, and sure enough, the layer underneath was green. “It’s inert, it’s a practice round. Just drill the damned thing,” Jeff said, irritably.
“Not so sure about this…,” Harry started, but Jeff pushed past Harry, hit the power button, and swung the arm on the drill press down. Fillings piled up around the bit, and a thin tendril of smoke spiraled up as the friction heated up the bit. Harry stood back three paces behind Jeff with a worried look and, folding his arms, peered cautiously around Jeff’s shoulder.
As things would turn out, this was a very fortuitous decision, because as Jeff turned his head to give Harry an “I told you so” look and perhaps make a remark about Harry being slow and obstinate, a small residual amount of explosive left behind when the shell was converted from a live round to a practice round was heated and rubbed up the wrong way just enough to detonate. If the round still had its full load of high explosive, it would have left a big crater where Jeff and Harry stood, so that was lucky. There was, however, enough left to bend the quill of the drill press, hurl the round across the room, and snap the drill bit off at the chuck and send it flying.
As he had in many ways before, Jeff shielded Harry, although this time quite literally. Jeff stopped a face full of shrapnel, and the coroner would later retrieve the drill bit from deep inside Jeff’s skull. Harry, on the other hand, got off almost unscathed. His ears would be ringing for a few days, and he nursed a small shrapnel wound to his left earlobe, but that was all. As he had peered past Jeff, a shard of the casing had buzzed past and zipped right through Harry’s ear as though it wasn’t there.
Returning the equipment to the stores the next day, Harry confided some of the details to Martta. “Ha! so you weren’t the death of him, but you did catch it in the ear,” she glanced at Harry’s bandaged head. “Didn’t I say something about a funeral, though?”