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.
Noah was a micromanager and the type of person who had HR on speed dial. He was a manager that kept a file on each of his employees in which he maintained a record of every infraction, suspicious behavior, or smart attitude. He was very much a “Theory X” manager and believed with every fiber of his being that if he didn’t keep eyes on everything his staff did, they would just be lollygagging and goofing off all day. He firmly believed that people didn’t put in an honest day’s work unless there was a carrot or a stick, and he was far more a fan of the stick than the carrot.
Noah managed a team of 12 medical coders, and although he was not the sharpest quill when it came to coding, his team was happy, effective, and performed well in spite of him. However, as much as they were meticulous, conscientious, and productive, Noah was under the misapprehension that it was only due to him setting targets, keeping a close eye on them, and reminding them regularly that he could fire them. To ensure that they weren’t pulling the wool over his eyes, he had asked IT to install spyware to monitor what they were viewing, their keystrokes, and even how long they paused between screens. When 2 months of monitoring had uncovered nothing untoward, it proved to Noah that they were devilishly sneaky and that he needed to buy better Bossware. It kept him awake some nights, racking his brain, trying to figure out what they were up to.
Naomi needed to work, but lived for her hobbies, her cats, and the hope of one day meeting the right partner. One might think Naomi was a boring old maid, but in fact she could be sly, and she had a mischievous streak. Her sense of humor involved making a cake that looked like a teddy bear, complete with chocolate buttons, candy floss whiskers, and caramel ear wax. She had also been the one to make candy eyeballs and put them in the punch bowl at last year’s office Halloween potluck lunch. Naomi was a keen member of the hospital knitting circle, where she could be fully herself. The circle was led by Pru, who was a slightly enigmatic character, and on whom Naomi had a tiny crush. Pru was a kind and warm person who guided Naomi through the intricate steps in crafting specialized artifacts like bible covers, frogs, and Halloween bats. Pru was also someone who subtly communicated a sense of menace, as though beneath the warm and huggable exterior there was something steely and maybe just a little wicked. When Naomi came to the circle meeting one evening in tears, Pru had coaxed out of her that her boss had criticized her work and had forbidden her to have knitting needles or scissors in the office. He had hinted that she might be fired and that he was going to “keep a close eye on her.” This so unsettled Naomi that she could barely hold her yarn and needles. Pru had cheered her up and right then and there had knitted a voodoo doll for Naomi and demonstrated to the rest of the circle the intricate stitches she used. Naomi was delighted with the doll and put it under her pillow that night, dreaming about how it would protect her from Noah. Over the next few days, she had occasionally poked crochet needles into the doll and it cheered her up, but a week later after stabbing it with a pair of scissors, she felt a little weird about it. With the full moon out and Halloween approaching, the doll and its implications unsettled her. Although it seemed ungrateful and a bit foolish, she tossed the doll on the living room fire. As it burned, she felt a mixture of guilt and release that she found hard to process. She would try to find a way to make it up to Pru for destroying a gift but was absolutely not going to tell her about it.
This year, Naomi had a very sly prank in mind for Halloween and was going to play it on Rachel. She was going to glitter-bomb Rachel’s cubicle in return for Rachel putting stinkbugs in Naomi’s voluminous canvas handbag. Rachel was 82 and worked 3 days a week, but was a young spirit and quite up to dealing in horseplay. She was also on Noah’s hit list of people he wanted to fire. He didn’t like the way Rachel smiled at him, and he resented having to accommodate her work schedule. He was sure that she was sneering at him and positive that she was laughing at him behind his back. On the first suspicion, he was dead wrong; Rachel was just short-sighted and had a tendency to lift her upper lip, wrinkle her nose, and screw up her eyes when Noah talked to her. She didn’t hear all that well and trying to lip read involved screwing up her eyes, wrinkling her nose, and so on. As for Noah’s second idea, that Rachel was laughing at him, he was half right; Rachel thought he was a blithering nincompoop and a petty numbskull. She knew that Noah wanted her out, and she was hanging on just to spite him. Unfortunately for Noah, she was the most knowledgeable person in the office regarding medical coding, with an encyclopedic knowledge of the systems. She was also the super-user on the system; she regularly deleted Noah’s print jobs and just as often locked him out of his account. His resulting huffing and puffing delighted her and put her in a good mood for the rest of the day.
Rachel was a keen gardener, and although she was not too shabby at knitting, sewing, and similar hand crafts, she freely admitted she wasn’t in the same league as Naomi. It was Naomi who was in the knitting circle, and it was also Naomi who had bought a 5-pound canister of fine aluminum metallic flakes at a handicraft auction. The powder flakes were meant for the paint industry, but Naomi had another plan for it. Rachel had a fair idea what Naomi was up to and knew that there was a prank brewing. Naomi was crafty in so many ways, but she left a trail a mile wide: her excitement over an auction, the traces of silver glitter on her sleeves, skirt, shoes, it was even in her hair, eyelids, and teeth! Naomi had also been suspiciously curious about the pneumatic message system that Rachel used, which was next to her desk. It was all that Rachel could manage not to burst into laughter at Naomi’s earnest sneaking. It was just so endearing, and Rachel made every effort to make it easier for Naomi to pull off her prank. She took longer lunches to give Naomi opportunities to scrutinize and put her plan into effect. Most of Naomi’s pranks backfired, and her victims usually helped as much as they could. Rachel disconnected a little grounding wire she had attached between the tube and the electrical cover to stop the static from building up so much. In winter, when the air was dry, static electricity was quite the pest, and without the grounding trick, opening the plastic cover could give one a nasty little shock. However, the wire might confuse Naomi and hinder her prank. Rachel also had another thought. It was pretty obvious the big baboon, Noah, was going to spring a surprise “audit” on her soon, and Rachel wondered if the audit and the prank could be nudged into alignment. One of Naomi’s pranks backfiring would be amusing, but if it caught Noah, it would be hilarious. Rachel pondered this and thought she saw an opportunity.
Rachel announced that on Friday she would be taking a longer lunch to do some annual shopping. With great fuss, she filled in the request form, and amidst sighing and grousing, submitted it and then argued about it with Noah. He resisted at first, but then with a little surreptitious nudging, it occurred to him that it would be an opportunity to do some of his audit on Rachel without her objections or interference. He was suddenly incredibly supportive and almost enthusiastic about her taking time off. Likewise, it didn’t take much to nudge Naomi to set her prank in action, with enough time allowed for mistakes and dawdling.
As it turned out, Rachel had barely built in enough time for Naomi to load her glitter bomb into an older, discontinued carrier tube and go two floors up to put it into one of the pneumatic tube stations, but then remember she needed to phone Rachel’s desk so one of her henchmen could answer it and leave the speakerphone on. Naomi waited in such a state of excitement and anticipation that she got hiccups, which were quite audible at Rachel’s desk. As it happened, this was immaterial, since Noah was entirely focused on searching Rachel’s desk for the contraband or evidence he was sure he was going to uncover. When Naomi heard activity, a little squeal of excitement was clearly audible over the speakerphone. She hurriedly tapped in the destination address of Rachel’s desk and hit the send button to get the carrier on its way. The pneumatic system did its “pop … whoosh” thing, and the carrier tube was whisked off. In all the excitement, Naomi had not properly closed the carrier, and it was soon dragging a veritable comet’s tail of aluminum flakes swirling in its wake.
The plainly audible giggling made Noah pause and glance around, and as he was about to investigate, there was the “whoosh … pop … click” of an arriving carrier. Having only found a large pair of non-standard scissors on Rachel’s desk, he was feeling desperate to discover something, anything to complain about. Thinking that maybe the pneumatic tube would deliver something illicit, he lunged at the lid to yank it open. As a billow of glitter poured from the pneumatic tube and engulfed Noah, a big spark jumped from his hand to the tube body. The cloud of sparkling glitter ignited, and the entire cubicle space was an instant inferno. The force of the explosion cleared the desk and shelves of anything not bolted down and sent them flying across the room like shrapnel. The rows of cubicle walls dampened the explosion and caught the debris, and the sprinklers eventually kicked in and doused the flames. Noah was, unfortunately, quite beyond help, though, burned to a sizzling dark roast with a pair of scissors embedded up to its handles in his chest, just like Pru’s voodoo doll.