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.
Sheo was a champion of lost causes, or at least, causes that people assumed to be lost, but which she was unwilling to surrender. Her biggest cause was the notion that everyone deserves access to mental healthcare that is safe, effective, and patient-centered. As a therapist, Sheo often saw people at their most vulnerable; people who would far prefer to be seen naked in public than disclose their private thoughts and the things they considered to be their soul.
Being a therapist felt like a calling rather than a job, but it was often a case of enduring a grinding workload and being underfunded, undercompensated, and underappreciated. It also often entailed wading through public apathy, social stigma, and unreasonable public expectations. One of the most bizarre to Sheo, and many other practitioners, was the way the public couldn’t imagine or accept that therapists were humans, with family commitments, their own hopes and fears, and actual needs like sleep, hunger, or a need to pee. Sheo had recently got entangled in a Twitter fight over therapists eating during client sessions. Despite her frequent clarification that she only ever snacked during a session if the client also wished to snack and was completely comfortable with her also eating, many supposed patient advocates, critics of psychiatry and psychology, and other therapists feverishly joined in the pile-on—and then there were the stalkers and the trolls.
One of the stickiest stalkers followed Sheo around on Twitter, and although she blocked him, he just kept coming back with alternate names. It got to the point where Sheo was having trouble sleeping, and then it stopped. For three days, Sheo just exhaled, cautiously relieved, but loath to believe it was over. Then the calls started, her email inbox filled up with hate mail, and someone lodged a formal complaint against her with the center and the state licensing board. Despite the maelstrom of harassment, Sheo tried to lead a normal life, see clients, and run group sessions. Then in the middle of a session, on a mild Wednesday afternoon in which the clouds lazily crept across the sky, she burst into tears and was comforted by her client. Feeling besides herself with embarrassment, Sheo apologized profusely, but Shay just reassured her, reminded Sheo that she was only human, and coaxed the session back to normality. The rest of the session went well enough, considering, and Shay had a curiously businesslike shift in her manner; not cold or unfriendly, Sheo reflected, but like Shay was tasking.
Clive was very much anti-psychiatry. He was also against pharmaceutical companies, psychology, and therapists. It wasn’t just that they had an alien model to his way of thinking; they were a business enemy. Every dollar spent on them was a dollar that couldn’t be used to buy his alternative healing products, his videos, his array of supplements, merchandise, and memberships. Messing with therapists and psychiatrists was easy, and he devoted at least an hour a day to trolling them. He reported several every week and sometimes hit jackpot by getting one so angry with him that they said enough things to get them suspended, sometimes even fired or dropped from insurance networks. It was like taking candy from a baby. He had been hammering at Sheo for weeks, and although she was feisty, he had found her identity, and was able to report her, then drop her work number and details on an anti-therapist chat channel.
He then turned his focus to the more important matter of product performance. The essential oil kits were underperforming this quarter, so maybe they needed some airtime and a competition or something. The homeopathic remedies were down a little in revenue, but up in profit due to a shift in sales of the higher margin products. Clive was considering adding Goop to his product line, but was not sure if it was a good fit. Next, Clive checked over the list of top sponsors and reviewed his activity plan and schedule. He had three lunch meetings in the current week with old sponsors who needed a touch and a pinch to make sure their annual donation would flow smoothly. On Thursday, he had a lunch date with a new prospect from a big vitamin manufacturer who had expressed interest in sponsoring attack ads and operations against psychiatrists. Clive was satisfied with the pipeline, and at this rate, he could splurge on another collectable Corvette to go with the one he had in a climate-controlled lockup where prying eyes and ex-wives wouldn’t find it.
Shay was tall, athletic, and had a dark sense of humor. She was also a serial killer. She had known she was different at an early age, and she knew that she felt some emotions faintly, like she was showering with a raincoat and socks on. They were there, but diluted, distant, dim, and didn’t get in her way when a job needed doing. Her first murder was when she was 11 and wearing pigtails held with elastics and little pink bobbles shaped like dolphins. The murder was not for fun, nor for petty gain, but for symmetry and balance. The world needed symmetry and balance to work well, to arrive at the best quality of life for everyone and the least waste. Shay didn’t like low-quality things, and Shay didn’t like waste. She had put down the pastor who was making kids cry because he caused low-quality outcomes and nobody seemed able to fix it. She fixed it with a sharpened steel pipe. That was many years ago.
Shay liked Sheo. Sheo was high quality, and being harassed harmed the symmetry of their relationship and the quality of their work together. Shay didn’t mind that Sheo was upset or needed a hug; those were very normal things that people needed. It disturbed the symmetry of their sessions, though, and messed with the quality of Sheo’s work. It was therefore worth looking into root causes and taking remedial actions. It wasn’t that Shay was angry with this stalker, or that she hated them, but that she saw them as a glitch, an impediment that needed to be fixed—or eliminated.
According to legend, sharks warn their victims with a bump and then circle back to bite. Life is a lot like sharks in that regard. The accident that takes off your hand, the disease that stops your heart, or the technology that takes your job first smiles and winks at you, gives you some time. They don’t usually just whack you out of the blue. Shay was like that, too. She didn’t just track Clive’s internet address, hack his internet provider, find his physical address, and then stick a sharpened bicycle spoke through his eye unannounced. She instead commented on one of his posts to a therapist that he was stalking. She pointed out that it was unprofessional, bullying, abusive even. He ignored her, then he attacked her, and then threatened her. She suggested that he was being unwise, to which he responded, “Well, come over and bite me, little girl.” Her answer was simple. “Challenge accepted.” Shay wiped all trace of her username and all interactions. The shark had bumped Clive before disappearing silently into the gloom, and he didn’t notice.
Over the next 2 weeks, Shay had identified Clive by his social media activity, membership at a golf club, and by cross-referencing group photos and combined data from an agency. The agency supplied data on millions of people, in which they attempted to cross reference and link records from retailers, courts, clubs, house sales, and various other sources. Using these and then using a malware-as-a-service platform, Shay gained access to Clive’s smartphone and verified his identity. The spear-phishing email was not complex, though. She had seen that he used a gaming site, and sent him a message from her own site, replacing a very similar-looking Cyrillic character for the “a” in “www.gamsters.com.” When he clicked the link, the site loaded malware to his phone and then passed him through to the actual site. Clive never realized that from that moment, everything he did on his phone was passing through Shay’s malware site. When he connected the phone to his PC, it was also infected, as was his security system, his Bluetooth-enabled fridge, washing machine, and assorted other devices that he didn’t even know were connectable. All this happened by the second day. The rest of the time was spent mapping out his movements, establishing patterns and touchpoints, and setting up an array of options.
Shay’s next act after gaining control of every connected device in his life, and planning her options, was pure aerobic fun. She went to his “secret” lockup garage and vandalized it. She broke all the windowpanes, painted the roll-up door and walls with graffiti, and tore the floodlight off the wall. Then Shay double-checked Clive’s location and schedule and triggered the garage’s silent alarm.
Clive was at a swanky private golf club, having lunch with a prospective sponsor when his phone buzzed. A quick glance rivetted his attention, and a closer look nearly gave him a coronary. Someone was breaking into the lockup where he was hiding the Corvette. Clive abruptly brought the meeting to an end, stuttered about an “urgent private matter,” and laid rubber getting out of the parking lot. He desperately needed to protect his Corvette, but almost as much wanted to prevent cops or newshounds getting wind of anything. His ex was as sharp as a chisel and would have a writ on his ‘vette faster than a hungry toad on a fleshy earthworm.
When he saw the graffiti and the damage, his heart leapt into his mouth, but the door seemed intact, so maybe, he beseeched all the gods that be, maybe the hooligans never got inside. He opened the door in the roll-up and stepped into the dim interior, feeling for the light switch. A hand gripped him, and he was expertly tugged off balance, pinned against the floor, a soft cloth pressed against his mouth and nose. He wriggled desperately but as the chloroform took effect, Clive’s body grew relaxed and inert. Shay slipped a nasal cannula into his nostrils, gently pulled a plastic bag over his head, and opened the valve on a canister of inhalable insulin. Next, she clipped a probe on his index finger, and fired up a batch script to transfer all his money to an offshore bank, the title of his Corvette to his ex-wife, and all his financial records to the FBI and IRS. By the time the probe showed zero pulse, flat blood pressure, and undetectable oxygenation, it was all done.
Shay carefully removed the plastic bag from Clive’s head, toweled off the little bit of foam and sweat from his mouth and face, and carefully arranged his body in an uncomfortable position suitable for someone falling from a heart attack. She triggered a self-erase in the malware, did a hygiene sweep of the scene, and reviewed her checklist before leaving. Back in town, Shay disbursed all of Clive’s money to a list of charities, including women’s health clinics, youth activity centers, and a sport team that Clive had despised. She changed her clothes, hair, and eye color, and put on a pair of wedge heels to alter her gait. She walked to the train station, climbed off at a busy stop, transferred to the airport train, and disappeared as though she had never existed in that city at all. Shay was satisfied: The root cause of the asymmetry had been eliminated, the equation balanced, and order restored.
Sheo was a little nervous when the attacks stopped. She was waiting for some new form of harassment to emerge, but then it didn’t. There were some oddities that she couldn’t explain, but life was returning to normal. She was surprised to receive a letter from a charity, thanking her for a $50,000 donation made in her name, and she couldn’t explain the delivery of a small office fridge stocked with a range of her favorite snacks. The other weird thing was when she checked her calendar. She had no record of Shay at all. Not only were there no future sessions, but there were none in the system for previous sessions, either, and her session notes with Shay were also gone. It was all very strange and unnerving, but then Sheo refocused on the present and the need to prepare for a client session that started in… “Seven minutes?!” She grabbed a snack and reviewed the client notes.