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.
Vance had slippery veins. They were the kind of rolling, squirming vessels that made nurses very nervous and produced fear in phlebotomists. They evaded the tip of a needle like they were sentient, hell-bent on libertarian self-preservation for vascular autonomy.
In a similar vein, Vance himself was a slippery customer. He had been one of those schoolboys whose eagerness to commit some childish prank would be swiftly replaced by sanctimonious confession that ratted out any co-conspirators at the most advantageous moment for himself. Vance became well known by schoolmates as the kind of person who would encourage mischief, but would not hesitate to turn anyone in if there was a reward of any kind: sly rather than clever and always slippery.
Being more crafty than studious, and lacking the parental financing of some of his school peers, Vance could not afford college, but found trade school a practical alternative. The courses were shorter, led to some applicable skill in a direct way, and the practical side of actually being a paid apprentice out in the field. Vance enjoyed getting a paycheck while he learned and found that there were a number of ways to augment his income, doing odd job repairs or installations or selling spares and resurrected appliances. Vance found he had a natural affinity for sales, but soon discovered a whole new world in recycling and laundering stolen goods.
It started with a client who seemed to have the worst luck, or had an extended family whose appliances were always in need of a tune-up, or who wanted cosmetic changes—different colors, scratches or dents removed, or optional features added or removed. One day, his client asked casually if Vance knew where to find the serial number on a washing machine, and if it could be swapped or changed. From then on, Vance had a steady income from what he called a side-craft, but also carefully constructed his business so that he would never be implicated directly should anyone ever take a closer look.
Vance found that he didn’t mind owning things that had visible defects if he knew they were otherwise of high quality. In fact, he rather enjoyed the secret knowledge. His quadrophonic audiovisual system was an eclectic mix of the best amplifier (with a scratched face), high quality woofers (one torn screen), the best tweeters (dented corner), and a giant screen (broken bezel). It comprised some of the best and most expensive components on the market. A casual observer might think he had a bunch of junk, but an astute aficionado would do a double take at the ingenuity of the ensemble and the undeniably superior quality.
Vance was employed at a regional hospital in the maintenance team, and over the years had risen to be the supervisor of a team of 15. The hospital management was very satisfied with his work and his ability to handle the complexities of hospital maintenance needs as well as the frequent changes in needs and staff. Although Vance had remained constant, most members of the maintenance crew stayed a year or two at most before moving on. He liked the high turnover of staff, adapted to the ever-changing needs, and developed a really clever side-craft that netted a higher income than any of the doctors who generally didn’t know his name. Vance derived great satisfaction from the fact that he drove a fancier Mercedes Benz than the hospital director.
To the physicians, Vance was largely invisible. Like the wait staff at a fancy restaurant, he served them unobtrusively and inconspicuously. The nurses noticed and valued him greatly. He was the one that made the bins of used syringes empty themselves, the supplies appear, and the equipment get fixed or replaced. If a hoard of opened supplies or pile of supplies nearing expiration needed to be transferred to a department that could use them quickly, Vance or one of his crew were there before you even ended the call. Sometimes they did it before they were even asked.
There were some uncomfortable anomalies, though. The hospital director once parked his Mercedes next to a fully loaded SL-450 and was surprised to see Vance emerge from it. Then he noticed that the driver side door was a mismatched color and the front fender was scraped. It made him feel quite disoriented for the rest of the morning. Another oddity was how Vance dressed when he wasn’t in coveralls. It looked to all the world like he had tailored suits, but they always had a little stain, or a tear, or the pants and jacket didn’t quite match. In the meantime, Vance had a very lucrative business dealing in medical surplus supplies and was still helping with adjustments and upgrades on stolen appliances and equipment. Sometimes he took product in lieu of payment, such as audiovisual equipment, tailoring services, or, for example, a nice car. Vance had figured an angle on skimming from the hospital recovery and donation program that had bins set up for excess stock, opened packs, or supplies approaching their expiration date. He would also intercept and skim from supply transfers to other facilities.
The biggest money earner was drug recovery. He was recovering drug remnants from the dead space between the needle and barrel of used syringes, and filling up unlabeled bottles for resale through his connections. The dead space in a syringe hub was anywhere up to 3% of the dose volume and averaged between 0.25 to 5 milliliters a shot. For even moderately expensive drugs, this earned him over $4,000 per month, and he was handling everything from fentanyl to fancy experimental cancer drugs. The net profit from his various schemes often topped the gross earnings of the hospital director himself.
There were problems looming for Vance, though. One of the nurses and a contact in the pharmacy had also been doing some skimming, and the introduction of a new barcoding and drug robot system had discovered some anomalies in drugs issued and drugs used at point of care. This in turn triggered a quality and safety audit, and some smart nurse Lean Six Sigma data analyst had started following a trail that had been left by the pair of skimmers. It just happened that one of the batches of drugs that the pair had stolen from was also a batch that Vance had intercepted on its way to a high-use department as a recovery transfer. It was just his bad luck that these had crossed paths, and if the analyst tracked them to the receiving department, she would quickly figure out that they had never been used at the point of care and had never been disposed of as expired. He watched her progress very carefully, and when he could see that she was going to discover his skimming scheme, he executed his plan to slip the noose.
He first left some incriminating empties and labels that would point back to the pair under investigation and anything else that could, at worst, point the finger of suspicion at one of his crew who had left. Then Vance dispatched his team to jobs in other parts of the hospital and started destroying evidence and moving what products he had as quickly as possible. The expensive drugs went to his friends even though the bottles weren’t yet full, the common supplies went back into the recovery bins, and he started incinerating the rest.
With mere hours left before the nurse analyst was due to come look over the maintenance rooms with her little team of auditors, Vance started burning labels, paperwork, containers, and the cheaper drugs.
He poured tablets into his hand from a full one-liter, narrow-neck stainless steel flask and threw them into the furnace. Vance quickly realized this was going to take too long and, as he shrugged, tossed the flask that was still three quarters full of Ibuprophen tabs into the furnace. This was shortly followed by one filled with acetaminophen caps and a packet of a few dozen naproxen blister packs. Vance watched for a moment as the packets burned in the fierce heat and then turned to grab the next load.
In their confined space inside the steel bottle, the ibuprofen tabs caught fire, and some basic laws of thermodynamics swung into effect. Burning fiercely, and feeding from each other and the rapidly climbing pressure, the tabs turned the stainless-steel flask into a rocket motor, and it shot out of the open furnace door with a loud bang. Vance didn’t even have time to register the bang before the flask hit him in the back of the head and he pitched forward like a dead weight. His forehead hit the smooth concrete floor of the furnace room with a dull thud, where he twitched a few times and lay still, his arms curling inward slightly. Vance’s breathing came in short bursts at first and, gradually, longer pauses.
The audit team found Vance after a short time had passed, but additional delays in getting a line into his slippery veins, plus the level of damage from a rotational brain injury and subdural bleed, were just too much for even the emergency department team trained by the renowned Dr. Esther Choo. Vance moved on, his side-craft behind him forever.