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.
Wally was an audiologist who worked in a mobile clinic. He visited rural and industrial sites to conduct hearing-loss tests on workers and ambient sound level checks of their workplaces. He also adjusted, repaired, and fitted hearing aids, often for free, and generally checked on the hearing health of anyone who wished to be a patient. Nearing 70, Wally had suffered a little hearing loss himself, and limped slightly from a motorcycle accident 50 years back when his beard was ginger, he worked as an aircraft technician, and there wasn’t a hint of the baldness to come.
Wally had weathered good times and bad, and he couldn’t decide whether these post Great Recession times were good, bad, or simply weird. His busiest times tended to be when times were hard and employers cut benefits. He had once been a corporate man, working in a big hospital, but audiology wasn’t very profitable and Wally and his entire department were “let go,” as the saying went. He worked for a device company for a time, but just never got the hang of internal politics and profit margins. One of his clients worked for a state public health department, and shoehorned Wally into a job that had become his life. Part of the deal was testing applicants at three of the job centers, and another part was testing at the industrial parks. Wally got an idea when he recognized several of the previous job center applicants who were now workers at a metal stamping plant. He had been experimenting with an open-source EHR system that had a practice management module. It wasn’t pretty, and a lot of it was pure command line green-screen stuff, but it worked for him. With some tinkering, the EHR spat out the forms required by various government agencies and insurance companies that ultimately funded him and paid for the sessions.
One of the other things the EHR could do was enable Wally to track individual patients, regardless of how many times they changed jobs, employment status, or insurance providers. Once he had captured them at the job center, he could see an individual patient’s history of every test and diagnosis, but and that became a problem. When someone built an interface between the EHR and R, Wally could plot patient’s hearing acuity in graphic form, and run correlation against many different variables, such as employment data, for example. What Wally saw was that, despite flawless inspection records of the occupational noise levels, work at any of three plants was strongly correlated with hearing loss in specific frequency ranges.
Careful not to sound like he was accusing anyone of malfeasance, Wally discussed the levels of hearing loss at these three workplaces with the managers. Usually indifferent to him, the response was stiff and icy and decidedly guarded. It didn’t end there, though, and the next morning, Wally was refused his normal covered parking spot just outside the main workshop entrance. Then he was asked to park his audiology trailer on the outside of the fenced area, and getting through security was suddenly a big deal. Where he had previously just driven through with a nod and a wave, now they wanted to inspect every piece of equipment he brought in or took out. The number of people coming for hearing tests dwindled, and getting measurements inside the workplaces was denied or he was forced to wait.
Leo was a security enforcer of sorts for the metal stamping plant, but also had a dotted line reporting to the corporation that ran five plants around the region. His main job was to iron out the kind of problems that neither HR nor the cops could handle, the kind of problem that might need a bit of physical persuasion and maybe a crowbar or a baseball bat. Word came down that the guy in the trailer who did ear tests was no longer welcome, and needed to be sent a message to mind his own business and consider moving on. Moreover, the guy had collected data that needed to disappear before he left town. “No problem,” Leo had said. “I’ll light a fire under his ass! Consider him toast.”
Wally got the message when someone egged his windows and his paintwork was keyed. His aerial was snapped off and a tail light lens smashed. He got busy repairing the damage and cleaning up, and he started planning to move to a different area. As he was adept at doing most of his own equipment maintenance, he was quite capable of replacing a lens and an aerial. In fact, he had a weakness for tinkering, and like many tinkerers and DIY enthusiasts, he had dozens of mostly completed projects underway. Many of these showed ingenuity, but some were downright kluges that relied on constant fiddling or special handling. He had a small cashbox hidden under the countertop above the washing machine and bolted to the frame. As a safeguard for the petty cash, and because he mindful of a few small thefts in past years, he wired an ignition coil to a small relay and fed the relay to a pair of its own contacts and the trailer’s 12V supply. Opening the cash box lid without first placing a magnet against a secret spot on the wall where a Hall-effect switch was hidden would result in over a thousand volts being fed from the excited coil to the metal handle on the lid, triggering an alarm.
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Some of his DIY projects were less elegant and reliable and were chronically in need of completion. For example, his small dishwasher used the 12V supply for its motor, but used a DIY gas heater for the water supply. It mostly worked, but sometimes the electrical connector rattled loose and then he would have to pull the washer out from the undershelf. That in turn often meant that the water connector would pull free and the gas connector would pop off. The mounting on the gas connection was not standard and had been waiting for over 3 years for Wally to buy the correct lockable coupling. However, it worked and that was all he was interested in. A bigger problem was the electrical power system itself. Wally had jerry-rigged a combination of solar panels, AC input, and a generator. The switchover between batteries and AC, and charging via solar or AC, required one to think carefully before selecting the right switch settings. The generator also had its complications; it ran on gasoline or propane, and care needed to be exercised before firing it up and synching so that it didn’t trip the battery control system.
Leaving the audiology trailer locked up at a camping ground three miles from the metal stamping plant, Wally drove into town to get provisions for his trip and a few spare parts for things that had broken recently. As soon as he was gone, Leo and his crew jimmied open the trailer door, and searched for the hard drive and PC they were told contained data the company didn’t want Wally to have. They were not very discrete in their search, and destroying things was considered part and parcel of the business. They tore the washing machine out of its recess, tipped the fridge over, and ripped a bookcase from the wall where it propped up a small TV. Sweating and out of breath from their workout, Leo’s crew spared a final bit of effort to kick the TV screen in and slash the upholstery of the chairs and small sofa. Pipes and cables stuck out of holes in the walls and counters, glass lay strewn everywhere, and tufts of stuffing gently settled on broken equipment and wrecked furniture.
Ten minutes down the road, Leo thought to interrupt the jokes and storytelling. “How much did you get from the cash box?” The conversation and joking stopped; puzzled looks were exchanged. “There wasn’t no cashbox, Boss,” someone eventually said. Leo yelled at them all the way back to the trailer. They soon found the cashbox and, when they discovered it was securely bolted, simply pried the lid with a crowbar. When Leo yanked open the lid, Wally’s anti-theft device fired up and a fat blue spark sizzled from the coil. Leo yelped as the high voltage coursed up his arm, and an involuntary spasm made him grip the handle even tighter. His agony was short lived, though, and none of the crew heard the alarm sounding. The gas that had been flowing for 30 minutes after the washing machine had been torn out was ignited by the pulsing arc of high voltage electricity. In the confined space of the trailer, a pressure wave built, and the entire trailer exploded in a ball of flame with a bang that would have caused permanent impaired hearing in the crew had they not already been thoroughly dead. In the end, Leo had indeed put a fire under someone: himself.