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 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.
Sheriff Peter Baker led a dangerous life, he thought. He might have been surprised to learn that police were not even in the top ten of the most dangerous occupations, because from what he heard from others on Facebook police groups, he was very worried. Peter ran a small police department of five people in a little town that was once famous for its annual funny-car parade. Those times were long gone and Bakersville (no relation) was mostly empty and quiet. In the last three decades, they had been hit by four storms that left many buildings on the main street flooded and irreparable. Every time something happened, fewer buildings were repaired or replaced, and more businesses and taxpayers left town. Peter had seen the department shrink from a staff of twenty to its current staff of five. It broke his heart, but looking at the budget, he saw that he would have to cut another position come January. Every year that Bakersville lost a few more residents, the town revenue dropped, and the police budget along with it.
His team was already on half pay and had to make up for lost income by doing security work for local businesses. That was hard, though, because many of the businesses that employed security had already moved out of town. Sally worked an extra shift driving a cab, Mike was farming chickens and alpacas, Henry did security at the last bank in town, and Fred had a security job at a mall over in Hopetown. Peter had found an evening shift security job at a small hospital that straddled Bakersville, Hopetown, and Riverdale.
It was at times like this he bitterly regretted accepting the federal anti-terrorism matching funds back in the early 2000s. He had two Humvees, a Bradley armored truck, and a ton of NBC suits, M16s, night vision equipment, and various other odds and ends that had never been used operationally, but sat on his books like a dead weight. Out of the 30 M16s, about five had ever been fired, and he still had no idea why he had a .50 Browning in the storeroom.
Fact was, all this sat around and accrued insurance costs, took up space, and had to be inventoried every year. He had managed to get the Feds to forgive the outstanding installment payments, but they wouldn’t take the stuff back, he couldn’t convince any other sherriff’s department to take them, and he wasn’t allowed to sell them. So, he was stuck with a parking lot and two storerooms filled with useless equipment, and that cost money to rent. At 56, Peter was nowhere near retirement age or Medicare, and with benefits cut, he was constantly fretting about his health and money. As a child, he had Osgood Schlatter disease of the knees, which made it difficult to kneel in church and often earned him a clip across the ear from the pastor’s wife. She patrolled the pews, on the lookout for those who didn’t sing the hymns, joked about, or snoozed in church. Ever since then, Peter had known that there was no safe place and that pain could unexpectedly visit. In addition to his nerves, Peter also struggled with his weight, which sometimes made an old knee injury from football flare up.
Peter fretted about being overweight and out of condition, but his slight emphysema from a childhood spent around coal mines and his knee troubles made jogging and climbing stairs difficult and painful. That cut out many fitness approaches, so Peter was unsure how to maintain fitness while also dealing with chronic conditions that he didn’t want to signal to the public or the taxpayer’s association. It kept him up at night that any further injury on the job might mean he could lose his position as Sherriff. Since the security job at the hospital was probably tied to him being Sherriff, he might lose that too. His wife, Jill, had her own health issues, and they were ever alert to signs of cancer returning.
These issues weighed on Peter, but he was possibly even more troubled by the alarming stories he heard from other sheriffs or on the TV. It seemed like every day on the job there was the risk of some perp with a gun—and now reports of street drugs from China so powerful that just touching a bag of them could put a deputy in the hospital. Hardly a day passed without a Facebook group story or video of a police officer being near death from the slightest hint of fentanyl. He had frequent nightmares about touching a drug and dying before he could summon help.
In his worrywart way, Peter was a kindly and considerate man, and he donated time and money to several local charities. It worried Jill that he was worried; she was the one who saw him toss and turn at night, or grind his teeth in his sleep, and she could see that he was often just spinning his wheels. One of the charities that he helped through the Boy Scouts was a halfway home for juvenile offenders. He had tried hard with so many young boys, only to see them fall by the wayside due to drug influences. “That big heart will be the death of him one day!” she remarked after a youth offender was implicated in a drug seizure and was awaiting trial. Peter had thought Cliff was finally clean and on track for a full release and better life. Instead, his supervised release had been rescinded.
The day Cliff was to be transported for trial, he managed to surprise the guard and broke custody, disappearing amongst the derelict buildings like a ghost. Recapture was not going to be too hard, since Cliff had predictable habits and a stash hidden under his grandmother’s house. Peter simply parked his cruiser around the back and waited in the kitchen for Cliff to appear from the basement holding two plastic bags of white powder and a wad of cash. Cliff tried to run, but Peter tripped him as he jinxed past. Unfortunately, Cliff hit a doorframe and split his right eyebrow, cascading blood down his face and leaving him temporarily groggy.
Peter transported Cliff to the hospital to have the eye seen to and the bump on the head evaluated. Thinking better of leaving the cash and drugs in the cab, and even though they were parked round the side of the building, Peter decided to lock the drugs in the trunk, out of sight. As Peter opened the trunk, Cliff hit him across the chest with both forearms, and made another run for it. A plastic bag burst under the impact and money cascaded down in a fluttering cloud. Peter lumbered after him and tackled Cliff before he got twenty paces. Peter cuffed his ankles with a spare set, just to prevent any more shenanigans. Panting hard, Peter noticed that his chest, arms, and hands were a snowy white from the powder, and he could feel it on his neck and face. “Ha! You look like a China White snowman,” Cliff said as he gestured at the fentanyl powder covering Peter.
Peter’s knees were throbbing, but the pain was like a tiny sideshow compared to his focus on the fentanyl coating his hands. He could already feel the poison creeping up his arms, and he furiously patted his arms and front, wiped his neck, slapped his hands on his thighs where more of the powder had landed. He was having difficulty breathing, and as he gulped for air, he could feel his chest and throat tighten. Peter was sweating, his hands clammy and tingling, and waves of nausea coursed through him. He threw up violently and tried to stagger back to the cruiser, pupils wide, to radio for help. As he keyed the microphone, Peter jerked in response to a clamping pain in his chest, his teeth clenched in terror and agony.
Still handcuffed and shackled, Cliff hopped toward the hospital building yelling for help, eventually drawing the attention of a group of nurses leaving their shift. By the time they reached him, Peter’s panic-induced heart attack had permanently ended his life of worry. While totally safe from the fentanyl, his fears had killed him as surely as a bullet to the heart.