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.
Nigel was a status-conscious and brand-aware CIO at a general hospital in a coastal city. He had newly joined the hospital and was looking forward to a work environment befitting a man of his status and importance. The experience was, however, not quite on par with his expectations regarding office space and technology.
The hiring interviews had taken place on the golf course and in the plush offices of the CEO and CFO. No mention had been made that the CIO office was in one of the older parts of the complex. Nigel had left with favorable impressions of a forward-thinking, tech-savvy employer that were to prove unrealistic. As it turned out, the IT department was not quite at the same standard of decor to which he was accustomed and was, in a word, was a bit tatty. His office had the dank odor of years of occupancy by a smoker, someone who probably ate cheap takeout and leftovers at his desk every day. From the green painted walls to the dingy windows, the atmosphere was one of disillusionment and despair. His own desk and chair brought the image home with a discordant flourish. The desk was a dark brutalist design in heavy wood, pitted from decades of use with the scars of cigarette burns and the remembrances of countless coffee mugs with no coasters. Scratched and dented grey metal racks lined the walls. Several piles of reel-to-reel magnetic tapes brimmed with old fanfold printouts, and three large and decrepit fax machines stood in various stages of disassembly.
The fax machines were perhaps an icon for the growing unease that he felt about the technical environment. The facility and broader hospital chain did use some modern fax servers, but still utilized many dozen actual paper fax machines, and general Internet and computer technology use was a decade or more behind what he was accustomed to. When he saw that the hospital used pneumatic tubes and carriers to pelt actual paperwork around, he felt depressed. After all the admiring farewells in Silicon Valley, and hearty congratulations that he was moving to healthcare, the letdown made him feel physically ill. The hospital seemed to exist in a steampunk golden age where money rolled in, but everything was archaic, broken, and tangled. So ended his first week in his new job and also the end of any pretense that his career there would be prestigious or even meaningful. Over the next 3 months, Nigel discovered that his main job was to keep the antique fax and pager systems from crashing and to build an IT plan that was designed to maximize the effectiveness of the billing system, navigate new technologies in a way that found tricks to support the fax and pager systems, and cut costs. When he looked into replacing his desk and chair, the CFO stared at him as though he had grown antlers. Above all, it became clear, his job was to cut costs.
By the end of 3 months, Nigel had become ever more cynical, and he focused on maximizing his own future, getting as much out of his employer as possible, and taking every opportunity to make his own work environment as comfortable and pleasing as he could. He was very aware that if he stayed fewer than 3 years, recruiters would smell a rat, so Nigel gritted his teeth and grimly inventoried the dozens of fax machines. There would be no capital expenditure until the next budget cycle, this much was clear, but nothing stopped him from squeezing some benefit out of the facility maintenance budget: new paint on the walls, for example, and he absolutely demanded that the brown carpeting be professionally cleaned. The carpets became somewhat of a pressing matter for him, and he nagged the maintenance department at least daily. It had started when he dropped a box of thumbtacks while pinning up a network map of the campus. Retrieving them involved getting down and personal with the carpet and looking under a shelf where one thumbtack had escaped. First, the carpet stank. It was a stench that was immediate, cloying, and aggressive, like old damp athletic socks forgotten at the bottom of a gym bag for a few weeks. It was also, he realized, not brown, but red. Years of accreted dirt had turned the carpet from a violent red to a swampy brown.
Stacey worked for the environmental services unit in the maintenance department of the hospital chain. One day, she was ordered to stop what she was doing for the respiratory therapy unit and urgently clean the carpets in the IT executive row. This was one of the older carpeted sections of the hospital, and she sighed inwardly. The older carpets needed more effort to clean, dried slower, and the results never quite met the customer expectations. She had also heard that the new CIO was an irritable youngster who was probably more used to fancy offices in Silicon Valley, not a 60 year old hospital building and furnishings that had seen decades of hard use and low maintenance.
When she arrived at the IT department riding a carpet extractor, it was already noon, and they kept her waiting before the CIO stuck his head out of his office, sarcastically asking why she was not done yet. He was still on a conference call, so he waved at her to start in the hallway. She unhitched the equipment trolley she was towing and filled the cleaner reservoir with the cleaning agent, checking that her dilution was correct. The cleaning fluid contained hydrochloric acid and hydrogen fluoride, so she made sure to wear long rubber gloves, eye protection in case of splatter, and a respirator to avoid any issues with her asthma.
By the time Nigel was done with his conference call, Stacey had just about finished the long hallway and was ready to start in the offices. Nigel cracked some sort of biting joke about it being high time, coughed, and flounced off for a meeting in the C-Suite. Stacey hadn’t even bothered to crack a smile or pretend to hear him. With her mask on, he wouldn’t have seen a smile anyway, and she was long past any need to bow or scrape to sarcastic suits. She topped up the fluids in the upright cleaner, took it down from the trolley, and got to work in the offices. It was a pest having to move the furniture around, but after 3 hours, she was done, and she stowed her fluids and packed up. She set out two carpet blowers to dry the carpets and left a note explaining that they would run overnight and would switch off on their own. She added a postscript that she would collect them around mid-day, attached a printed instruction sheet to the outside of the main office door with tape, and rode off to go dump the dirty water.
Nigel returned 2 hours later. Despite a foul mood resulting from the meeting and his pent-up frustration, he noticed that the once-brown carpeting was now a brothel scarlet. At least, he reflected, it would be clean and not stink of old cigars and smelly butts. He pulled the printed sheet from the office door and dropped it into the garbage, no doubt some doublespeak about best service, color fading, and the need to use frequent rug shampoo. The mere thought of just how filthy the carpets had been made him feel queasy and caused him to cough self-consciously. Nigel set to work on a retirement plan for the older and more troublesome fax machines. It had taken ages and concerted effort, but eventually the CFO had seen the logic in phasing out unreliable and high-maintenance fax machines and copiers in order to replace them with more modern leased equipment. His lamp also needed to be retired, he reflected to himself. It flickered a bit and was making his headache worse. He popped a couple of codeine-combo pills from a bottle that he had inherited with the desk and got down to the serious business of planning for some server upgrades, fax software, and new furniture in the next budget cycle.
By the time the dizziness caused by the cleaning fluid fumes had become noticeable, Nigel was only minutes from convulsions, collapse, and death. As he lay on the bright red carpet, he could perhaps have made out the warning text on the sheet he had pulled from his door. In a final statement of how his life had changed since joining the hospital, Nigel vomited copiously as he lay on the floor, aspirated it, and died on his newly cleaned scarlet carpet.