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.
Micaela was the supervisor of a 15-person demolition and reclamation crew, and today was the first time in her life that she had come face to face with a mummy. Her day started off with the normal difficulties: conflicting client instructions, a few missing team members, and a compressor that didn’t want to start. This was all part of her daily life, and as much as she would rather have been hanging out at home with her 32 rescue dogs and a one-eyed cat called Bartholomew, she was a gold-medal champion at making do and getting stuff done. This week, her team was dismantling an old building that used to be a hospital computer center.
Back in the early 1980’s, the computer room had been the home of one of the beasts of the industry, and the four-processor Burroughs B7700 had stood in rows of brute computing power, flanked by solemn lines of grey-white disk drives the size of little washing machines. It was a time when the CIO was seen as a prince among men, wielded the largest budget in the hospital, and he had visions of empire. His plan for the hospital to be the regional electronic medical data processing hub, and to rent out computer time to hospitals, colleges, and research facilities, had seemed like a real possibility. The accident had not exactly sunk his vision, but it came at a delicate time when negotiations were hot and the deal could be won or lost.
Right now, the once proud building was a wreck, and decades of underfunding and neglect had taken their toll. With the closure of the hospital 5 years ago, attempts had been made to sell the giant building and repurpose it as a mix of shops, apartments, and offices. The economy just wasn’t right for it, though, and instead it was being demolished to make way for a bypass, a much smaller office park, and a strip mall. It was Micaela’s job to dismantle the computer rooms, recover some of the plant equipment and scrap metal, and then demolish the rest. The team was currently pulling out the old raised false flooring from the computer room and the rooms that used to house the large 2,000 line per minute train printers, the 20-odd magnetic tape drives, and a set of card readers. The false flooring was wicked to work with, and almost everyone on the team already had a cut or a scrape from sharp metal edges. Her radio had crackled with one of those hourly cryptic messages that were sure to mean trouble. “Boss, you’d better come check this!”
It was late in the day, she was hot, sweaty, and felt grubby, and was expecting more issues with the compressor. Earlier, one of the crew had fallen through a gap in the flooring and had to be taken to the urgent care center to fix up badly skinned shins and a twisted ankle. They were behind schedule, and she was in no mood for games or mistakes. Limping from an old incident involving a watermelon and a shoehorn, Micaela left her mobile site office and crossed to the far end of what used to be the mainframe room. The first thing she saw was a pale young worker clutching his knees and looking shaken. Turning to three others who stood around a sheet metal box in the subfloor the size of a large bathtub, she nodded at them and asked: “What now?” One explained that the youngster had started pulling apart a sheet metal floor plenum when he found “that,” gesturing to something inside the metal box. The box was apparently some part of the plenum where the big air chiller units used to pump cold dry air into the subfloor void to keep the mainframes cool. With the sun setting and the construction lights casting shadows over the interior of the box, Micaela shone her inspection lamp down into the box. Micaela was a pretty unflappable person, and the only thing that ever gave her the heebie-jeebies was kids with balloons, but what she saw lying in the box gave her a start. Grinning back at her from the box was the empty-socketed face of a horror show mummy. Its yellowed skin was pulled back like parchment over a face with a gaping mouth and gumless teeth that were oddly long and bright in the light of her lamp. As she peeled back more of the top of the box, she could see a fully intact corpse, wearing the remains of a jacket with wide lapels and a style of pants she figured her dad might have worn when he was young.
“Well, that’s something you don’t see every day!” she announced several hours later over a beer. With the site in the hands of the police, she had joined the rest of her team at a bar to work through the events with the help of beer and jokes. The corpse was a mystery, but the effect of an external work stoppage was that she had good contractual cause to reschedule the project milestones without penalties, and whatever happened, they were now back on schedule. Micaela was practical like that.
Bruce and Todd were bosom buddies back in the 1970s. Bruce had dropped out of college when his father had been laid off from the car plant, and the money to fund a degree in computer science had evaporated along with most of his father’s pension. Todd was from a wealthier family and went on to complete his degree and get a job as a computer programmer at the hospital. Bruce had not been idle, though; with the hope of a degree gone, he had found a job with the hospital as a computer operator. It was not as fancy as being a programmer, he thought, but he had hands-on work with the big mainframes that paid reasonably well and would fund some studies after he had been there a year. He was dating one of the other operators who also worked shifts in the computer room, and life was tracking on a slow upward climb for Bruce.
He was pleased when Todd was employed as a programmer at the hospital, but he soon found that they had both changed over the last 4 years. Where Bruce was settling down, planning marriage, and not much into parties anymore, Todd was still a frat boy focused on parties, hemp, and hustles. Todd made full use of his access to the mainframe and the facility, and soon had a number of side hustles going. He had set up a small fridge and microwave oven in a store room behind the mainframe room, and sold candies, crisps, and cigarettes at a profit. He also put the computer room PROM burner to use making counterfeit copies of gaming chips for the popular Atari game consoles. The electrically programmable read-only memory (EPROM) chips he bought for a few cents could be sold for many dollars once he used the burner to copy game code onto the EPROM chips. While these and several other schemes kept Todd amused and busy, he had two other schemes that were less obvious but far more lucrative. Todd had hacked into the security camera system of the hospital, as well as the telephone system and the email server. What he assembled from that access were dossiers of people with compromising materials: steamy calls between illicit lovers, clips of petty office thievery, and emails filled with details of liaisons and lust. He even had a clip of a security guard and an operator stealing a quickie in the paper store. Todd had used some of these for his own entertainment, but leveraged the best for payment or favors. Todd wasn’t content just to troll for victims, though; he actively enticed some into compromising situations, such as receiving counterfeit electronics or stealing office equipment.
It was into one of these traps that Bruce stumbled after a fight with his fiancée. With the encouragement of Todd, one of the women from the data capture pool had flirted with Bruce. Her only interest was to pay back a favor that Todd had bestowed, but Bruce was drunk, pliable, and horny, and there were photos. Once Bruce had made up with his fiancée, and marriage plans were back on track, Todd squeezed him: not hard at first, just a small favor to copy some files. Shortly after his wedding, Bruce discovered that there was more. Todd squeezed harder. Instead of bliss, Bruce found himself in a daily nightmare of wondering when the next demand would come, or what sneaky way Todd might have to dig him deeper into the hole. Not only did Todd have Bruce’s marriage over a barrel, but the files Bruce had copied turned out to have been patient information that could get Bruce fired, if not sued or brought up on criminal charges. He couldn’t sleep well at night, his stomach was in constant turmoil, and he broke out into a cold sweat every time he heard Todd’s voice laden with menacing innuendo and mockery. Life had gone from slow but steady upward mobility to fraught and fragile.
It was a Friday night when Bruce was on shift, Todd was in the back burning counterfeit chips, and a maintenance guy was changing out a broken gauge in the security office. At three minutes past midnight, the tired maintenance guy dropped a washer down the back of the control panel. He had gasped, fearing the worst, expecting at any moment that the steel washer would short out some expensive circuit in the guts of the panel. He peered into the gap behind the panel, and with the aid of a flashlight and a gooseneck mirror, he could see the washer resting on a cable just above the cooling fan. He had sighed with relief and carefully wriggled his hand down the gap towards the cable after removing the console panel. He bumped the cable with his forefinger, and the washer had rocked and teetered, threatening to slip further. He froze and let out a slow breath. Careful not to bump the washer again, he gently gripped it between his forefinger and index finger. Almost clear, he had rotated his hand to pull it out when his wedding ring shorted out a 12-volt terminal on the rear circuit board. The shower of sparks made him jump backwards, dropping the washer. It tumbled down the back of the console like a pinball, sparking here and there in a haphazard path of destruction. The closed-circuit security monitors blinked out as spatters of molten metal shorted out dozens of circuits, and a shudder ran through the entire building. Obeying what it thought was a direct input from the console, the fire suppression system triggered and proceeded to dump 30 tons of CO2 extinguishant into the secured computer center with a rumbling and shrieking noise.
In the computer room, the lights went out, and after 3 seconds of blackness, the emergency lights flickered on, bathing the white plumes of CO2 belching from the ceiling in a green glow. As the senior operator on duty, Bruce escorted the two junior operators out through the security door, and then broke the glass to access a stainless-steel canister containing a rescue respirator. He scrabbled at the locking lever, separated the two halves, and as his training course had taught him, pulled the pin to activate the chemical that would generate 15 minutes of oxygen. Donning the mask, he was suddenly claustrophobic, and might have panicked and torn the mask off, but the stink and heat of chemical air surprised him so much that he had time to recover his nerve. He took the clipboard from the wall, and checked that nobody else was listed as being in the secure computer room area. He turned to make the mandatory sweep of the mainframe room beyond, and was surprised to see that he was up to his knees in a white fog of cold CO2.
By the time Bruce had walked through the double fire doors of the mainframe room, the fog had risen to his waist, and he nearly fell over something on the floor. Peering through the fog, he could see a tape trolley lying on its side; next to it, like a swimmer doing the crawl, was a twitching body. Kneeling besides it, Bruce came face to face with a blue-lipped and gasping Todd. Todd had clearly been in the back storeroom and had run into the trolley in the fog, falling into its choking depths. Bruce started lifting Todd, but when his eyelids fluttered open, Bruce saw malevolent and manipulative cunning, and he dropped Todd back into the frosty clouds of CO2. He knew what he had to do.
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It was easy to lift two floor tiles, remove the stringer bar from the pedestal heads, and roll Todd under the floor where the CO2 was thickest. Bruce figured the body wouldn’t be found while he figured out what to do next. After replacing the tiles, Bruce set the trolley back up, and returned to the security exit with a minute of oxygen to spare. Had Todd been inclined towards numerology, it may have interested him as he lay under the floor, cold and dying, that if you drew a line on the map connecting where he now lay to where his father had died, and then drew another line at exactly 66.6 degrees, you could make an isosceles triangle whose sides added up to 666 miles. It might have further interested him to learn that at the other point of the triangle, his younger brother Morty would one day die of a broken neck after falling down a flight of stairs while trying to evade an irate patient in a wheelchair.
Bruce volunteered to work overtime over the weekend to catch up on lost time, and once the air was declared safe, he got busy. Over the next 2 days and nights, Bruce dragged scrap lengths of sheet metal under the floor, and built a box to hide the body up against the wall where one of the big chiller units blew a steady gust of frigid dry air. It was meant to be a temporary stopgap, but in the 2 years that Bruce remained working there, and with improved security cameras in the computer room, he never got the opportunity to move the body. With the body nearby every day, Bruce suffered terrible bouts of depression and anxiety, and lost his hair, his wife, and his job, and he simply left one day and faded away.
Todd’s disappearance was mostly unremarkable, and his victims didn’t want any fuss. When his various other scams and hustles unraveled, the police concluded that he had done a bunk. Rather than admit that they had no idea where Todd was, the police chief made a pompous display of bravado. He claimed quite preposterously that Todd was a master criminal who was part of an organized crime syndicate, and had escaped mere hours before they were about to make an arrest. By the time Todd’s mummified body was discovered under floor tiles, past which the chief had unknowingly walked several times, he was safely retired to a trailer park in Florida.
A side effect of the chief’s bravado was the firing of the CIO whose plans to build a hospital value-added network and a computing empire had started to unravel when the CO2 release gave a lie to his assurances of perfect uptime guarantee. When the police announced with great fanfare that an organized crime syndicate had been operating right under their noses, the CIO and head of security were sacked, and nobody else wanted to think about what might have become of Todd.