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.
Dr. Bill Lamb lived in a van. Bill had been the director of a lab that analyzed air, water, and soil samples for a number of government agencies and industries. It was a small lab, but performed well enough to be sought after by researchers in three countries. It also performed well enough to be noticed by a big conglomerate that bought it, stripped its assets, mined its customer list, and sacked most of the management, all of the administrative staff, and a third of the analysts and technicians.
Bill adapted poorly to being fired and felt adrift. The day he was told that his position was being made redundant had also been the first anniversary of his wife’s death. A short and violent battle with liver cancer left her dead and him dead inside. His work became something of a lighthouse in the tempest of crises that often follow a medical death, and a year into dealing with it was far too soon for the iceberg of “retrenchment.” He also found that 55 was a rotten point in one’s career to be jobless: far too soon to retire, far too old to compete, and far too tired to put up with HR and job interview nonsense. Sonia, his wife, had been a medical director. Between the two of them, they could afford a lifestyle and a home that were a poor fit for an unemployed single guy with few prospects.
The purchasing conglomerate was stingy with severance pay and benefits, but did provide Employee Assistance Program benefits for 3 months, as well as enrollment with an outplacement firm. The outplacement program consisted of some lectures and workshops on the current job market, resume crafting, and access to basic office services. By the second of five lectures, it was clear that he could forget about any sort of government job at his age, and that unless he was prepared to work for a fifth of his previous salary and no benefits, it was likely to take 3-5 years to find another position of similar stature as his old job. The handy budgeting software they provided showed that within 18 months, he would exhaust all his savings and be unable to meet his mortgage payment. The fourth lecture dealt with alternative paths for people in similar situations, those of advanced age, no advanced degree, or “blemished records,” as they tactfully put it. They listed starting a small business, temp work, and being a “work camper” as options. He learned with astonishment that Amazon had a “camperforce” of several hundred people, mostly retirees doing a form of migrant seasonal labor with no benefits.
Before his 3 months with the outplacement firm were up, Bill took advantage of their templates, legal help, and admin support to frame a business plan around his skills and experience and register a small company. According to his business plan, he would do mobile sampling and analysis of air, soil, and water, which was broad enough to mean anything, but narrow enough to sound meaningful. The last piece of useful advice from the lectures was budgeting for a long period of unemployment. Looking at his expenses, business plan, and tossing in the fanciful notion he could actually bring in money with his business, the adviser helped him realize that he should probably downsize the house and cars, sell what assets he had, and live the frugal life until he either landed a job or his business plan performed a miracle. By the time his “graduation” arrived, he had sold the three-story, five bedroom, six-and-a-half bathroom McMansion, Sonia’s BMW, and his Range Rover, and he had moved into a small two-bedroom townhouse and bought a used Subaru in an indistinct shade of green.
Chelsea had been homecoming queen at her high school. Her wavy blond hair and vivacious manner had attracted jealousy and the wrong kind of slick-talking male attention. What started out as just party use soon developed into a serious drug habit, and a series of arrests and a short custodial sentence resulted in the kind of “blemished record” that Bill had heard about. Chelsea cycled through low wage jobs with little prospect of a stable career and frequent close shaves with the local narcotics division of the police.
One of those narcs was Trig, a burly red-faced man with the swagger of someone used to bossing people about and not being questioned. He was a somewhat gullible man, susceptible to tall tales of modern-day boogeymen. A presentation by a visiting officer on the risks of street fentanyl had spooked Trig, and even during his annual SWAT refresher training he was mulling over how dangerous his job was. Trig excelled in the practically oriented SWAT training; he could empty and change a magazine faster than 93% of the others on the course. Trig itched to shoot it out with fentanyl drug lords.
Bill’s cash reserves looked impressive until one looked at a burn plan in which the income was zero and the outgoes were still far more than nothing. With the “work camper” option not entirely out of the question, he reviewed again the strong advice of the outplacement team to be mobile and go wherever the jobs were. If he went the “van life” route, it would cost him around $60,000 to have a livable campervan. This was a big chunk of cash upfront, though, and while he continued to send out resumes and research the actual feasibility of his business plan, Bill subscribed to the biggest online “van life” forum and lurked in the discussion threads.
By the 6-month anniversary of his firing, Bill had sent out exactly 1,000 resumes, had received 300 form rejection letters, and had been interviewed enough times to come to the dismal conclusion that the likelihood of landing a director-level job was as dim as the lecturer had intimated. He had worked his network as suggested, was active on LinkedIn, GlassDoor, and five major job boards, and yet 3 years of drought was very much in the cards for him. The interest in his half-serious business was a fair bit more enthusiastic. There was nothing concrete, but at least a dozen organizations showed an interest should he ever launch it. Then came a completely unexpected call.
It was an actual request. Someone wanted air sampling done for a study that would start in 60 days’ time. Could he do it at the given price, and would he comply with the listed standards? Looking over the specs and standards, Bill was back on firm ground. He had most of the materials required in a storage lockup, he knew where to get good used equipment, and he understood how the sampling and analysis would be done and how long it would take. He had not realized just how much the unemployment and job hunting had weighed him down until this moment when he was thinking in terms of work he understood. Suddenly, the decision was clear. He needed to get a van that could be a home and mobile lab and try this business out. Worst case, he thought, he could always join the Amazon crowd and slug painkillers and heave boxes for just over minimum wage. If the business flopped, he would still have the van and a roof over his head.
Two months later, Bill was driving a pearl-white reconditioned Mercedes Sprinter down the Interstate, about to do his first job as the CEO, owner, and only staff member. The requesting lab had been using satellite imagery and data to report on oil field flaring and leaks. In their comparison data of a non-oil field area, there was an unexpected anomaly. To make sure that they could either explain or dismiss the anomaly, Bill’s job was to investigate and do local sampling and infrared imaging. To achieve that aim, Bill had rented an eight-rotor drone with an attachment for ram air sampling and an infrared camera.
With the GPS coordinates provided by the client, Bill set the drone to map out a search pattern at 300 feet above ground. The readings and infrared image were nominal for most of the first pass, but as the drone passed over a dry riverbed, the sensor data spiked, and the camera showed a bright red false-color plume following the curve of the riverbed. As the drone banked for the return path of interlaced loops to collect and confirm, Bill caught sight of two cars in the mostly dry concrete riverbed. Turning on the drone’s PA system, Bill frowned and frantically typed in a message.
Chelsea was at the wheel of the Subaru, keeping the motor running and the turbo ready, while Jason did the business. With another few jobs like this, she would have enough cash to split town and go somewhere safer, somewhere where people didn’t know her for turning tricks or doing drugs., if only her luck held just a little bit longer.
The problem with luck, though, is that there is almost always a guy like Jason around: a guy with endless great ideas for a hustle and limitless confidence that he was the one who could pull them off. This was the kind of guy who was sure surveillance cameras couldn’t see your face if you smeared it with lemon juice, the kind of guy who involved others in their schemes because their banter was as smooth as Teflon-coated ice. In this case, Jason managed a deal to buy a sack of fentanyl tabs from one undercover cop. In a rare feat, thought, he also had a ready buyer: another narc. Chelsea had driven Jason to a parking lot at the sports arena, where he bought the tabs and was unknowingly been taped, filmed, and had his fingerprints lifted. Jason had snorted a line of coke on his way to the riverbed that crossed town to make his big sale.
The stretch of concrete riverbed just east of the industrial area was the ideal place for a movie scene depicting a drug deal. There were no surrounding buildings, no roads overlooked it, and there was no water. Built in the 1930s to contain flash floods, it channeled a small river past agricultural land and the emerging city. The river was now just a trickle at best, but flash floods still happened every few years. It was also a really stinky place. It was a mile west of the city sewage treatment plant, and on days when the air was still, stink hovered over the riverbed like a musty cloak. The stench deterred the skateboarding and drag racing set, and nobody was going to seek it out for a picnic spot. It was a good place for a drug deal.
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As Jason handed over the sack of tabs, the cops sprang the trap. Jason was standing there with a case filled with marked $20s and humming with tracking devices in his left hand and a sack of fentanyl tabs and three airtags in his right. As the cops yelled for him to get down on his knees, a drone hovered above them, and a mechanical but clear female voice sounded. “This is an urgent public health advisory. You are in a contaminated area and should immediately leave!” The cops were distracted and stared at the drone in disbelief. Jason ran and Chelsea did what she always did when things got weird. She stomped the gas pedal and got the hell out of town.
Trig reacted to the smoking tires and screaming engine just like his SWAT training had taught him. He drew his .40 Glock and proceeded to empty the magazine at the departing getaway car. Fortune had other ideas, though, and as fast as his fingers were, Trig never got the third shot off. The methane and air mixture that enveloped both cars and lay like a great fat plume in the concrete riverbed ignited from the muzzle flash of Trig’s barrel. The firestorm spun the cars and threw them tumbling down the riverbed like toys. The flame disappeared into the depths of a concrete tunnel feeding the river, leaving both cars billowing black smoke. For a second or more, the show seemed to be over, but then superheated steam blew from the tunnel as hundreds of gallons of wastewater were boiled by the accumulated methane pocket that stretched for hundreds of yards underground. The steam extinguished the flames that were still licking their way out of the cars and stripped them clean of anything plastic or organic.
The drone was high enough and light enough to be hurled skyward by the shockwave, and it escaped the flame front mostly intact. Limping back to base on three of its propellers, it delivered the cargo of air samples that would later confirm the origin of the methane, spurring a brief and futile investigation into elicit dumping of wastewater and venting of gases by the sewage treatment plant. In the final analysis, Trig had not been at much risk from fentanyl, but had met his end because of his fast trigger finger and the gas.