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.
Ronald Reginald was a strong believer in a regular morning bowel movement. He felt unsettled and irritable the whole day if his routine was disturbed. He aided this routine by having a monthly colonic and eating only organic food. If he had a core belief, it was that eating natural food that he processed himself would lead to a long and healthy life. As the curator of a small museum, he had access to funds and opportunities to indulge a passion for medical antiquities and objects to enable him to control his own life in a way that agreed with his core beliefs.
The museum had been the pet project of the founder of the St. Helena Hospital, one Benedict Leopold McInnes. He had owned a mill, but had secretly yearned to be an archeologist, travel the world, walk in the places of the ancients, and discover artifacts that would reveal hidden pasts. In truth, he never travelled more than 20 miles from the center of town. The hospital had been a practical matter, born more from the brutality of the state of work safety and profit in the early 1800s than any desire to improve the lot of the local population. The milling process was hazardous and injuries were a daily occurrence. The aim of the hospital, therefore, was to return workers to duty as soon as possible and make them as industrious as practical.
As a man of thrifty inclinations, Benedict had procured most of the medical equipment by way of deceased estates and bankruptcy auctions. It was at one of these deceased estate sales that he came by an assortment of old and well-used surgical instruments. When he presented them to the ship’s surgeon he had employed, the fellow snorted and held a bronze retractor up to the light. “Damn my eyes if this not be Roman!” At that moment, holding a surgical instrument that was over a thousand years of age, Benedict decided to establish a museum attached to the hospital, one of medical instruments, texts, and methods.
Since its founding in September 1803, the museum had seen a dozen curators before Ronald, and each had left traces in the collection of their preferences. They had also been, almost to the man, as stingy and frugal as the founder. When the ninth curator had discovered a gold burial urn that others had foolishly thought to be bronze, he sold it at great profit and kept the museum in the black for centuries. Ronald had a particular affinity for stone implements of medical history and had acquired Ancient Greek and Roman grinding vessels, mortars and pestles, and a small stone mill. He felt very proud of this acquisition and waxed on about how it represented an antiquity dating before the original Roman artifacts with which the museum was founded.
What nobody knew about Ronald was that he, like many curators before him, also had a little private collection. It was not quite as fancy as the museum, but he chose pieces that might have personal use and appeal. For example, he often crushed medicinal or culinary herbs in an antique mortar and pestle. The pestle had a bronze handle and a marble head and was probably late-Roman era. The mortar cup was fashioned from a silver-white pyrite stone, with a bronze base, and iron straps and bronze handle. The straps and handle were not original, and the mortar and pestle were from different centuries, but Ronald liked them as a set. He enjoyed freshly ground herbs and spices and used the set daily.
Another item of daily use was the head of a 17th century Swiss halberd. The point had been broken off a long time before Ronald had found the halberd, and the beak on the back had been badly bent. The socket where it had once connected to a shaft was intact, but needed a little repair. Ronald removed the beak, rounded off the torn metal where the spike had been, and sharpened the blade. Once he added a hardwood handle to the socket, he had an amazingly good kitchen cleaver that made short work of pumpkin, frozen meat, and other hard foods.
His home had many antique artifacts in regular use, but his prize possession was a “LiangXin” vessel, better known as the “assassin’s teapot.” It was an authentic piece and was in good condition. It was rumored to have been used to murder a visiting Japanese dignitary, but Ronald used it to joke with visitors by pouring both coffee and tea from the same teapot. By blocking one of two little vents in the handle with his thumb, or leaving one open, Ronald could dispense either coffee or tea, without any noticeable mixing.
On hearing the history of the piece, some guests were always a little concerned about the potential that the original poison might have remained in the teapot and leach into whatever drink was poured from it. Wasn’t Ronald afraid of poisoning himself, they usually asked. Ronald routinely assured them that the teapot had been carefully and thoroughly examined by a toxicologist. Whatever poisons had been used in the teapot over a thousand years before had long since dropped below a detectable level. Alternatively, the toxicologist had suggested, maybe there never had been any poisons in the teapot at all. Roland had very much not liked an explanation that robbed his artifact of most of its allure and undermined its provenance. He had enthusiastically embraced the storyline that the poison had probably been organic in origin and over the years had denatured and diminished to the point where it was no longer dangerous. He also rather enjoyed the swashbuckling image that it cast on him.
There were other artifacts that he had accumulated to bolster that image, such as a bone saw that had been used in field amputations in the Crimean war of 1853, a bullet extraction tool used in the Boer war of 1899, and a surgical lamp used in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. He put these devices to use in one way or another, and they gave him a sort of transgressive and immersive pleasure that he found very enjoyable.
Ronald’s health had never been excellent, and even as a child he had been prone to stomach upset, mystery coughs, and conjunctivitis. His father had written it off as common hay fever and a streak of weak character. His mother had taken it very seriously, however, and he had spent many hours in doctor’s surgeries being poked, and examined, and sitting in waiting rooms. He had also never been any sort of athlete in his youth, and now as an adult, he stuck to pastimes that were mostly solitary and unenergetic.
He still visited doctors more regularly than most, and when he complained about “feeling weak and tired,” the doctor, having flipped through chapters of a bulging medical file, prescribed a tonic and aerobic exercise. These did not seem to Ronald to be very effective, and he was soon back with the same complaint, but added that he was getting aches all over his body. Despite several such visits to the doctor, or perhaps because of the frequency of them, a physical origin was not felt by the physicians to be the most likely cause, and a referral was issued for Ronald to visit a therapist who specialized in depression, neuroses, and hypochondria.
Ronald was incensed at this treatment and became a hostile patient. He also doubled down on documenting his many symptoms, adding to his complaints of tiredness, weakness, and body aches that his toes ached, his legs swelled, he had burning sensations in his eyes, he had stomachaches, he had recurrent coughing fits, his skin was slightly darker in places, he had dry, rough patches on his arms, thighs, cheeks, and buttocks, and tiny bumps all over the place. He offered to show his bumps and rough patches to the nurse while listing these and many other complaints and concerns, but she was overwhelmed and simply wrote down the vast number of complaints and left it to the doctor to sort out. The physician was, of course, seeing far more patients than she could manage, her administrative and documentation burdens were too high, and she spent a sizable amount of her long and crowded workdays fighting about insurance when she needed that time to work with patients. Her failure to carefully read through 11 pages of notes that the nurse had dutifully written up on Ronald was unfortunate.
The first time that she panicked was when his toes needed amputation. She felt that unforgettable sense of vertigo and panic that sets in when one realizes that opportunities to prevent a fatal outcome had been missed several times. He limped in one morning and said that his feet were hurting even worse than before, and that despite taking double doses of pain killers, he could not bear the pain anymore. The nurse had calmly and efficiently wheeled him into a room to take a look at his feet, but she had yelped so loudly that several pairs of eyes appeared in the doorway and simultaneously took in the blackened toes and clearly gangrenous feet on display.
By the time his detectable and observable signs and symptoms had led the team to the unmistakable conclusion that he had an advanced degree of chronic arsenic poisoning, they had also come to understand that the prognosis was bleak. Ronald died in the hospital 3 weeks later from the multiple injuries and cancers caused by the steady diet of arsenic that his silver white arsenopyrite mortar had been adding to his daily food intake. He died in relative ease provided by equipment that could easily have been part of his medical museum or private collection.