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.
James was a lay preacher and an executive at a medical insurance ministry. Of all the brethren at the health-sharing ministry, James was the smoothest and most nimble-tongued, and could talk up a vision of health, caring, and mutual support that would leave an audience tearful. He was also a monstrous liar and a consumer of kink.
The principle of the sharing health ministry was simple, ancient, and relied on several assumptions. Since time immemorial, communities have banded together to form syndicates in which risks were shared and resources pooled. In some ways, this ancient practice was the basis for both insurance as a concept and of corporations themselves. Specifically, the sharing ministry pooled resources of a set group of people, a virtual or real community, by charging a monthly membership fee. In return, the collective pool of money would be offset against the risk that any member might have a medical need. Unlike modern corporations, there was theoretically no management layer or shareholders to consider. Also, unlike modern health insurers, there was no profit-taking or need to employ utilization management techniques such as preauthorization to control costs. The assumptions, of course, relied on the members being generally healthy and self-managing, having an ethos of risk avoidance, and the lack of any widespread risks or crisis in which any large group of members might become sick at the same time.
These were all points that James was very careful to either cover with the lightest and broadest of brushes or omit entirely. In practice, the ministry behaved very much like a modern corporation or insurer, and there was indeed profit-taking that funneled money out of the shared pool and into the church coffers, and there was indeed a management component that absorbed some part of the income to pay salaries, benefits, and in James’ case, bonuses. Also in practice, there was very much a widespread risk in the form of a pandemic disease that could hit an aging, somewhat unhealthy, dietarily imprudent membership like a solid punch to the solar plexus.
Barbara was a devout member of the church choir, and although she struggled somewhat with her weight, she kept in shape by gardening, running errands, and pious thoughts. She delivered home-cooked meals to several of the older and more infirm members by bicycle. Few of her family members were still alive or in the area, but she did keep in contact with Shay. Barbara didn’t exactly remember how she was related to Shay, but they had exchanged letters for ages, and Shay had occasionally sent little parcels of delicacies that she had found on her travels, which Barbara treasured. Not much of a connoisseur of exotic foods herself, Barbara tended to only keep some of the fancy cheddar or biscotti for herself, and spread the benefits to others in the church group, who received these little gifts with great gratitude and wonder. To simplify explanation, Barbara said that the goodies came from a niece who was a flight attendant and lived in New York. It was a tiny fib, but Barbara knew that Shay travelled a lot and often had very short stopovers in foreign cities, and her post office box was indeed in New York. Flight attendant was also the only job she could imagine a woman having with that amount of foreign travel, and Shay never corrected her on this point.
Things had ticked along for Barbara in a routine sort of way for years. As a widow, she had few distractions and was able to devote a great deal of her time to helping at the church, tending her little garden, and making sure that she did her best as a member of the choir. She knew she didn’t have the best voice in the group, nor the finest ear for tone, volume, and timing, but she certainly and without doubt gave it her best. The choir had competed in a regional final on Sunday, and it had gone very well for them. They had finished second and received a trophy that would take a place of pride in a glass cabinet in the church entrance. Barbara was so proud that, on Monday morning, she had woken just a little earlier so she could pedal to the church and gaze at the trophy before meeting with other members to discuss the event. Monday passed in a bit of a blur, but she had delivered food to three parishioners and done several other chores. That night, her throat felt just a tiny bit scratchy, and just as a precaution, she took a cup of peppermint tea and sucked a ginger lozenge.
Tuesday morning dawned and Barbara felt feverish, her head full of cobwebs. It took longer to cycle to the church, and by lunchtime she had to beg off attending afternoon choir practice. She was relieved to hear that they were canceling the practice because several others had called to say they had pressing business to attend to. At least, she thought, she wouldn’t be letting the team down. By evening, Barbara had developed a headache, perhaps from too much chamomile tea and too many ginger lozenges. Her head pounded cruelly every time she coughed, and she was coughing a lot. She tried to finish a throw she was knitting for the church charity, but was just feeling too wooly-headed to focus, and her headache wouldn’t quit, so she went upstairs to bed. Climbing the stairs winded her badly, and Barbara scolded herself for being such a lay-about. She scraped together some energy and emailed Shay, telling her all about the wonderful news and not dwelling at all on how she was feeling sick.
James was away at a church conference when he got an urgent call from home that they needed his co-signature to release extra funds from the health ministry. A third of the congregation were ill and needed to visit the doctor, half the choir were very sick, and two needed to be admitted to the hospital. James stalled, saying he needed to review the finances and shift emergency funds into the current account. He was also very irritated. Just that morning he had crowed about how well their fund was doing, with steady income and very few claims. He had bragged about their fiscal rectitude and even gave the example of turning down a claim for new dentures. “Wear and tear are not the burden of the community,” he had explained, “and those who fail to maintain their teeth cannot call on their neighbors to bear the burden!” Now he was stressed, and we all have various ways of dealing with stress. James, for example, dealt with stress by engaging the services of a professional. Miss Amber was a very stern lady who helped him remain disciplined and chaste while navigating a wicked world that was brimming with temptations of the flesh.
By Thursday morning, Barbara was struggling. Every step was now an exertion, and her body ached like she had run a marathon. She was constantly out of breath and was unable to leave the house, let alone cycle anywhere to deliver food. She just felt so guilty and ashamed that she couldn’t come to Thursday evening choir practice. She was barely aware when the choir leader explained that it was cancelled anyway because four members had taken ill unexpectedly and were in the hospital, and several others had excused themselves without giving reasons. On Friday morning, Barbara barely had enough strength to pick up the bedside telephone when it rang. She felt relieved that it was only Shay, and hastened to explain that yes, she was feeling a little under the weather, but was sure this would clear up soon. Barbara passed out during the call and was barely aware when the ambulance came for her.
James was in a bit of a bind. The day before he had been tempted by one of the Jezebels in the hotel lounge. Miss Amber had instructed him to put on his electronic chastity belt, and she had locked it over the internet. He was comforted that he was safe from temptation and grateful that she spared time to scold him for having an embarrassing physical response to her image on the screen, as well as the sensation of the cold metal touching him. To check that it was working, she had caused it to throb against his hardness, and had then scolded him mercilessly for that depravity.
Now the news was even worse. Half of the choir were admitted to the hospital and two were in the ICU. James looked at the ICU charges and screamed loudly enough for someone to knock on his hotel room door to ask if he needed help. The current account was drained, and he was staring dismally at what was left in the emergency fund. With the various overheads like the corporate fees and his expenses (cars, the conferences and travel, and Miss Amber), there was not much margin to play with, and inpatient care and ICU beds for several people was rapidly draining it. James started the process of denying claims. He made furious calls to the hospital for the ICU cases to be downgraded to ordinary inpatient beds and to shift inpatient cases to outpatient care. By the end of the calls, James needed an emergency session with Miss Amber, who cruelly tormented him by showing off clothing and poses that would rouse the Devil and bare his soul for chastisement.
Barbara was not aware of being discharged and given instructions on how to keep her airway clear and stay oxygenated. When the taxi dropped her off with a small oxygen bottle on a trolley, plus a folder full of bills and discharge notes, she barely knew where she was. With great effort and strength of spirit, Barbara let herself into her apartment and closed the door. She knew she needed water and that she must get to bed and use the oxygen bottle. Someone had explained something about that and maybe mentioned a hot damp cloth. She made it as far as the kitchen before the lack of oxygen reaching her brain caused her to collapse. Then, without the intubation and high-flow oxygen that an ICU would have provided, Barbara quietly slipped her earthly tethers and was gone.
Things were looking up for James. His cost-cutting efforts had worked, and the emergency fund was still intact. The deaths were unfortunate, of course, but clearly those members had been imprudent or had been less than truthful when they filled in the risk assessment enrollment forms. Under those circumstances, it was entirely right to restrict or deny coverage, especially when the acts and omissions of the few endangered the pooled resources of the many. In fact, in his coming presentation, he planned to tell the audience of other health-sharing ministry managers how this unexpected calamity had befallen his ministry, and how with discipline and courage, they had weathered the storm intact.
Cool eyes scanned the screen, and skilled fingers threaded queries and commands. Shay paused, cross-checked, verified, and then a half smile flickered across her face. James had some bad habits, it seemed, and a vulnerability. She reviewed a model number, checked a database, and found a chipset listing. She examined the notes on the microcode, middleware, and operating system. The zero-day exploit she selected was a prize item that cost more than a house, but since the goal was worthy and the device likely to be terminal, it was worth the potential cost. She built her attack plan.
James had been so filled with trepidation at presenting the current status and his recovery plan that he needed a session before heading down to the auditorium. He had his notes and numbers, he knew his story, and he had the firm security of the device tightly encasing his loins. James strode to the podium, flashing a broad confident smile as he acknowledged and greeted many of the familiar faces along the aisle.
He launched into his presentation. “Our core mission is to protect the flock from the uncertainty of medical risk,” he spoke in reverend tones, and warmed up to describing how just a week before, his fund had been in perfect shape, but then disaster struck. He faltered briefly when his chastity device hummed suddenly. Miss Amber obviously testing him, teasing him to put on his best game, and James rallied, describing how some of the members had let them all down by hiding prior conditions and health defects. The audience was lapping it up, and James was in the home stretch.
Taking control of the device had been simple, and Shay watched a real-time feed from the conference to make up her mind as to which way this was going to end. A quick function check was verified when James briefly grimaced and jerked, and his speech faltered momentarily. If the audience noticed, they probably ascribed it to the pang of sudden health emergencies of his fund members, but the cause was obvious to her. He was reaching a crucial point in his speech, describing the steps he took to “protect the ministry fund.”
James summed up and singled out one of the deaths that he explained was obviously very unfortunate, but entirely her own fault. He listed how the woman in question had been fat, unfit, and had not kept her side of the bargain. He continued, stating how she had rejected the hospital discharge instructions, and had suffered a deadly consequence of her deceit and sinful ways. He was about to deliver the finale with an appropriate flourish when skillfully constructed commands issued far away took advantage of a flaw in the device design, and the vibrations around his loins reached a crescendo. The fail-safe circuits froze, and the battery began a rapid spiral into instability. James yelped and twisted at the podium, drawing uncertain laughter, but then with tendrils of smoke clearly escaping the front of his trousers, James dropped the microphone and ran headlong for the exit. As he scampered, shrieking up the aisle, smoke was billowing freely from his pants, and the first flames spurted through his zipper. James almost made it to the exit, but then as the jumbotron zoomed in and the surrounding audience gasped, he fell and writhed on his back, desperately trying to tear off the locked device as his entire groin area erupted in a blinding fountain of white-hot jets of flame. The large lithium-ion battery pack melted the chastity device, and rivulets of molten metal flowed rippling across the floor. James had preached his last.
By the time the battery pack had exhausted itself, there was no circuitry left for any forensic discovery, and the general embarrassment of all but the deceased made a quick investigation and declaration of death by misadventure the only possible conclusion. Far away, Shay was satisfied that the equation balanced, and James had been given a fitting end. She finished up by releasing the video files of James’ sessions with Amber and all of his dubious financial activities with the sharing ministry funds.