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.
It was that time of year again at Doctor’s Daily. Awards were being handed out, budgets announced, and dinners scheduled. The editing team—Carter, Janet, Martha, and Roberta—were rumored to be in line for an innovation award, and were huddled on a conference call to plan an acceptance speech. Talk turned to who was going to wear what, and whether they needed to write an acceptance speech just in case. Carter tried to remember where his tuxedo was stored, Roberta and Martha planned an outing to update their wardrobes, and Janet decided to enter a competition that had a full makeover as first prize, with a manicure as a consolation prize.
Jake had been aimless and unmotivated until he had met Randall and joined his militia. Where Jake was somewhat apathetic but angry at the complexities of life, Randall had his anger focused and honed to a fine edge. The list of grievances of all the members of the militia was long and at times bizarre, but they all agreed that white men had lost their heritage and that every other group was making progress. It wasn’t hard to see that where wages, job opportunities, public sympathy, and heck, even life expectancy had risen for all other groups, white men had gone backward on every positive metric. They met every week on Randall’s plot to shoot at targets in a mock-up of a house, discuss survival tactics and weapons, or attend a presentation from a visiting expert. Some days a few got together at a bar that bordered on Randall’s land and just commiserated with whomever was having a crisis or discussed current events.
One recurring topic at both the formal sessions and the impromptu meets was the need to get the message out better. Their Internet outreach was pretty good, and they got hundreds of views on each YouTube or TikTok video about gun handling, self-defense, or survival tricks, but anything really hard-hitting about women, Jews, or Black people got taken down before they really got traction. Their bomb-making video resulted in the channel being suspended for a month, plus a warning that any more would result in a permanent ban. What they really needed, Randall had said over a beer, was to do something that got their message out without being censored and also get picked up by the “lamestream media” and social media influencers. Jake had watched a pirated movie about a radio station being captured by guerillas, and suggested they do the same.
Randall and the others stared at him, and Jake soon found himself assigned to a “strike team” to identify a target, plan the raid, and be one of the operators who carried it out. Initially buoyed by the attention, Jake quickly thought of all the ways this could go south, and he really wasn’t in this militia gig to go to prison or get taken out by some SWAT sniper. The more he tried to unobtrusively remove himself from the project, the more tasks Randall gave him. Somehow, every task he completed cemented him deeper, and as the plan progressed in its ghastly logic, he found himself first in a plan that involved one of the team wearing a bomb vest, and then being nominated as the person to be wearing it. The more he tried to argue that he wasn’t the best candidate or even worthy for the role, the more the rest saw it as an attempt to be gracious, and the more certain they were that he was the right choice. It was also hard to back down when the whole thing had been his idea, and he was getting such respect and approval. After all, he reasoned, they would probably never actually do it, and even if they did the raid, it was very unlikely he would ever have to detonate the vest. And, he thought somewhat slyly, he could just not detonate it if it came to that.
While everyone in the group was praising Jake, and even Kurt’s 16-year-old daughter was giving Jake the eye, Randall knew better. He could see that, behind all the fancy talk, was just a cowardly little snot trying to back out, so the more Jake tried to act unworthy and unready, the more Randall pulled him further into the plot. When it was clear that Jake would have to wear a suicide vest, and his little piggy eyes were bulging out of his head in panic, Randall was internally laughing his head off. Randall slapped him on the back while hiding a sneer, toasted him, and called for a round of applause for the hero. One thing was sure, though: Right up to the point where they were in control of the target, Randall wasn’t letting him out of sight for a minute.
The actual building of the vest was handed off to Greg, who often spun his background in the Army Corps of Engineers as being an expert in demolition and improvised explosive devices. Thankfully, the Internet was full of designs, and soon Greg had a plan. His wife stitched three rows of polyester straps from old seatbelts to a fishing vest and created loops to hold 16 sticks of explosive, a battery pack, and two bottles of explosive gas. She had added clasps at the back so it could be adjusted to the wearer. Greg wired up a dead-man’s switch that he was surprised he could simply order online from Amazon. He had somewhat oversold his military experience and contacts, but was immensely relieved that one of his friends had given him a tangle of expired electrical detonators that had been part of a lot scheduled for destruction. After successfully firing two in the backyard with a small 9v battery, Greg followed the instructions he had found online and wired up the detonators for the explosives, plus the two bottles of gas he had bought from a shop that supplied welding and industrial equipment. By the time he had finished, he was right proud of the work they had done, but glad to be done with it.
The plan moved along in fits and starts, but eventually a target was identified, the place was surveilled for a while, and a date with destiny was set. As teasers, Randall’s militia group made videos and posted blogs that hinted that something big was coming. The final piece of the puzzle was updating their manifesto, getting a hotspot working so they could livestream the event, and set a final date and time. An hour before the time, they sat in the back of the van, checked equipment, had a last smoke, and got Jake into his vest. Randal pulled the straps tight around Jake’s chest so the explosives would be secure in their loops, and also with a wry sense of humor to make the little bastard uncomfortable. At last, it was time, and they executed their attack.
Getting past the night guard of the building was as easy as planned. One of the team simply banged on the door until the lone elderly guard went to open up to receive a box that was well taped and filled with gravel. By the time the guard had fetched a hand trolley and closed up again, Randall, Jake, and Pete were in the building and heading up the stairs. According to their intel, the stairs were not monitored, so they wouldn’t be noticed until they breached the TV station. The stairs were, in fact, equipped with closed circuit cameras, but the guard didn’t monitor them after hours unless the fire alarm went off. He also wasn’t there to do more than receive deliveries, answer the phone, and record staff entering or leaving. He was employed by the building owners, and the primary reason was to collect any evidence that tenants were exceeding operating hours and could therefore have their rents bumped up or cancelled.
Jake was very uncomfortable, he could hardly breathe, and when he walked, the red explosives rubbed against his nipples. At first, it was merely distracting and made them stiffen, but by the time they had climbed up the fire escape stairs to the second floor, his nipples were chafed raw, and he winced at every step. The two steel gas bottles in the center of his chest between the explosives dug into his stomach if he tried to bend forward and forced him to walk with a very stiff and erect posture, which made the stairs harder to climb. By the time they exited the stairs, Jake was sweating in streams, and the briny rivulets made his nipples sting. They all donned their gas masks, a precaution in case anyone at the TV station had mace or the cops fired tear gas. Also, they would be less recognizable and looked more menacing. As planned, the three split up to round up any night crew staff, although this was thought unlikely, and to find the room where the broadcast would actually be done.
The editing team had collected in Carter’s office on the second floor to put some finishing touches to their speech and was getting ready to go downtown to where the dinner and ceremony was being held. They were all excited that they were being given an innovation award, but all but Carter were too cool to show it. Carter was buzzing and couldn’t get his bow tie to stay straight. They didn’t have many opportunities at work to get dressed up, so there had been some digging in cupboards, borrowing, and purchasing. Carter had squeezed into a tuxedo that he had last worn 8 years before, and it carried the distinct scent of the cloves that had been put in the pockets to ward off fish moth. Martha had noticed and wondered aloud why the room smelled like a dentist. She wore a smart business suit (that didn’t smell of cloves), and she was relieved to see that Janet and Roberta weren’t wearing anything flashy or extravagant. Janet had won the free manicure, and had allowed them to give her long gold nails for the evening, which would normally have been out of character for her. The team seldom met in person, so it was an added occasion just being together for once and being able to talk about things other than work: nails, shoes, and the possibility of good food to come.
The buzz was suddenly cut short by a shriek from Martha. There was a menacing figure in the doorway wearing a black gas mask and a suicide vest. “Morkle orkel arkle aargavarkarpadaar oo,” he said insistently pointing to the corridor and outer office. “You lost your aardvark in the parking lot?” suggested Martha. The figure shook his head in an agitated way, and tried again, but Roberta pushed past, and with a frown and a lot of hand gestures, she explained, “Listen Bomb Boy, we can’t hear a word you are saying.” The figure waved one hand in irritation. “Morkle ORKEL OO OO!”
“I think he said something about a snorkel or a tutu?” Martha tried helpfully. “Nope, ” said Roberta flatly, glaring at the eyes blinking behind the mask. “As much as I want to be all obedient and whatnot, as long as you are wearing that Darth Vader cosplay thing, we just don’t know what the hell you want.” In desperation, Jake pulled down the gasmask. “I said, where is the recording studio!” Carter looked dumbfounded. “But we don’t have a recording studio! This is an editorial office for a magazine!”
Jake was flustered. This was definitely not the answer he was expecting and he thought they were just trying to hide it. “Don’t lie, this is Mic Communications! You must have TV or radio!” Roberta heaved a theatrical sigh and rolled her eyes. “Boy, are you ever lost. Bomb Boy, we are a medical news magazine; we aren’t a TV or radio station.” Janet had been peering at his bomb vest and tapped on one of the gas bottles with a gold manicured fingernail. “You know that we can see that your dynamite sticks are road flares, and your bombs are argon bottles, right? You probably got this from a portable TIG welder. I mean, you know argon is inert, right? Argon wouldn’t burn if you nuked it!” Carter snort-laughed and Roberta cackled, while Jake looked increasingly glum.
Drawn by the raised voices, Randall appeared in the doorway. His mask was much fancier and had an exhaust valve through which his voice and anger were pretty clear, even though the clicking of the valve made him sound like a particularly short tempered and querulous robot. “Click Why is your mask off? Click” Jake hurriedly fumbled with the mask, but in his haste, the adjustment buckle on the rubber strap caught on the pull ring of the flare that was tight under his left nipple. There was a brief pause during which he got the mask halfway on, followed by a bright red flame and billows of smoke as the road flare diligently went about its business. Jake screamed as the flame melted the fishing vest and set his shirt on fire. Forgetting the dead man’s switch in his panic, Jake clawed at his chest trying to get the flame away from his skin. The switch worked as advertised, the circuit diagram worked mostly as designed, and several detonators went off like gunshots, spraying the room with bits of road flare, fishing jacket, and seatbelt. Jake screamed like he was powered by steam and would have probably just run in little circles like a demented firework had Janet and Roberta not grabbed him and unbuckled the vest. With the vest lying on the floor, spewing bright red flames in several directions as the bulk of the flares caught alight, Randall pulled out his handgun and fired three rounds into the ceiling. “Click, Where is the recording studio? Click,” he demanded.
Things were not going well in the land of modified fishing vests, and the combined effort by the road flares to illuminate the world was intolerable for the two highly pressurized bottles of argon. While a very placid and laid-back gas, the sheer amount of it stuffed into the steel bottle resulted in an impressively high pressure, and the flares were raising that substantially at the same time that they were weakening the bottle. With a bang that made Randall’s pistol sound quite meek, one bottle split open at the nozzle, and the entire thing freed itself from the vest like a cannon shell. The peacock-blue steel bottle streaked across the room, and hit Randall between the eyes. Randall crumpled in an untidy heap, and gave out one last “Click, whoosh, Click” before expiring in tremors.
Pete had been on the far side of the floor when he heard screams, a string of shots, and then a huge bang. Drawing his pistol, he sprinted toward the noise. Pete had the same cheap gas mask as Jake, and by the time he reached Carter’s office, he was gasping for breath and his eyepieces were partially fogged up. He skidded to a halt in front of Randall’s inert form, but then before he could make sense of the scene, Carter tugged him off balance by pulling hard on the filter housing of his gas mask, Roberta hit him in the knee with a heavy three-hole punch, and as he doubled over, Janet hit him in the back of the head with a fire extinguisher.
The four editors just made the dinner in time to receive their award, and somehow, they managed to get out their speech without too many stumbles. There was no food left in the buffet, but to their delight, Janet and Martha could still get a cup of freshly brewed Kenyan coffee and a chocolate mousse.
Randall did not survive his encounter with the argon bottle. Pete survived, but always had a limp and couldn’t remember anything that happened that evening. Jake became an artist after his short custodial sentence and having only one nipple was a frequent reminder to keep his bright ideas to himself.