(criteria listed below)
Location: An oil rig
Object: A potato
Number of words: 1,000 or less
Synopsis: A man dies aboard an oil rig and it’s up to an insurance investigator with a special gift to prove he was murdered.
The Juggernaut (word count: 998)
Jane swiped through the virtual stack of files she’d been assigned and double clicked on a folder that briefly thrummed beneath her fingertips. She recognized that vibration as part of her own, organic hardware rather than a software function. As one of many insurance investigators for a large, multinational company, she knew to take heed when a file raised a red flag. She was the only one, however, who relied on what her mother described as ‘The Know’ to conclude a case needed closer review before payout.
She pinched open the first document and read the name: Hank Mulligan. Hank was Caucasian, male, fifty-five years old with a COD of heart attack. The last two words blurred out, resurfaced as ‘asphyxial arrest’, and then returned.
“Hm.” Jane chewed the inside of her lip and waited for anything else to present itself. When it didn’t, she skimmed the page for any points of interest. Three years prior to his death, Mulligan had a pacemaker surgically implanted. Post-surgical follow ups showed the pacemaker as working well. The company he worked for, Olympus Petroleum Products, paid for and required bi-annual checkups for the first year and then annual after that.
“Field Engineer on the Juggernaut,” Jane read aloud even as her eyes and finger drifted down to the search engine icon at the bottom, right of her screen.
The Juggernaut, Jane learned, was one of many oil rigs built in the Gulf of Mexico by OPP, and Mulligan had been one of two men hired to measure the readings while drilling. Like most oil riggers, Mulligan and the other MWD Field Manager had worked two weeks on and two weeks off in alternating shifts.
Back in the file, Jane checked the type of policy and its payout amount. It was a term policy and no small beans, with an increase added the year Hank had his surgery. That wasn’t unusual, but the amount by which it was increased in the last year was.
According to the file, the beneficiary was Ava Mulligan, spouse. Jane blinked as the letters in the woman’s name stretched and made a slow, sinuous loop around the word ‘spouse’ before resuming their stationery posts. Jane plucked the nearby phone off its cradle. She dialed an extension, waited a moment and then said, “Sir, I have one. No, I think I’d better question the widow and his family, maybe friends, before we involve the police. Yes, sir, I’ll let you know.”
Jane watched the rig growing larger in her window before the pilot’s voice startled her out of her reverie.
“The landing can sometimes be a bit rough, but don’t worry; I’ve done these thousands of times.”
She nodded. The landing didn’t worry her. She’d known she was safe the moment she’d shaken the pilot’s hand at Houma heliport. Sometimes it was like that: instantaneous knowledge. Unfortunately, the Mulligan case wasn’t delivering the same clarity. Ava Mulligan definitely had a low-level funk surrounding her, but that was it. The questioning of family, friends, and acquaintances had brought to light that the Mulligan’s marriage wasn’t all wine and roses. A couple people even hypothesized Ava was having an affair, but the fact remained that Hank Mulligan died miles from home, out in the Gulf, apparently from a heart attack in his sleep – far from his wife. The fact also remained, as the doctors had put it, Mulligan worked long hours on a high-pressure job and not only had needed a pacemaker, but also suffered from sleep apnea. A heart attack was unfortunate, but not entirely surprising.
Yes, but it wasn’t a heart attack. It was asphyxial arrest, Jane thought, frowning down into the choppy waters below. She’d looked it up the day Mulligan’s file had flagged itself. Asphyxial arrest was a heart attack brought on by asphyxiation. And while it was possible sleep apnea coupled with an ‘iffy’ heart could have caused his death, Jane couldn’t shake the feeling foul play was the true explanation.
It was a little weird sleeping in a dead man’s bed, but after talking to Mulligan’s coworkers and touring the Juggernaut, it was a last, Hail Mary pass. Jane stretched out on the slim bunk, wide awake despite the long day and her first, bumpy ride in a helicopter. She turned on her side and studied Mulligan’s sleep apnea machine. It looked like a tiny, canister vacuum ending with an oxygen mask at the end of its hose.
How could Mulligan asphyxiate while using a machine that literally forced oxygen into his nose? It didn’t make sense.
Jane pushed up on one elbow, tapped the machine’s on button, and picked up the mask. The oxygen whooshed through the hose followed by a faint hiss and then a cool mist of humidified air hit her face bringing with it the odor of raw potato.
Jane grimaced and thrust the mask to full arms’ length. It was creepy enough sleeping in the man’s bed, but she was going to smell Mulligan’s last meal, too? The smell of raw potato grew stronger.
She scrambled upright on the bunk. She’d spoken to the cook. She’d noted what was served the night of Mulligan’s death, and potato wasn’t on the menu. With equal parts revulsion and determination, Jane brought the mask to her face, closed her eyes, and lay back.
The next morning, after questioning two roughnecks and the confused cook again, Jane returned home. At her desk, she dialed the same extension.
“Sir, contact the police. They should exhume Mulligan’s body for autopsy. A man named Derrick Hand he’d befriended on and off rig was having an affair with Mulligan’s wife. They plotted to kill him. The rig’s cook signed a written statement that Hand specifically asked for something not on the menu that day – raw potato. Have the coroner check under Mulligan’s fingernails for traces of Hand’s skin and in his mouth and trachea for traces of raw potato. Thank you. You’re welcome, as always, sir.”
I didn’t get anyone to edit this one because I got the challenge at midnight the day I was traveling up to NYC and used less than 24 of the 48 hours I had to work on it. I finished editing it about a half hour before it was due, so really didn’t have time to ask anyone.
For the record, I am not a fan of mystery, so wasn’t much motivated to write it. I also spent hours on the internet reading about life on an oil rig – not something I was all that interested in – and then trying to figure how to turn a thousand words into a fully fleshed out and solved mystery. For this reason, I used supernatural elements in the story to help me get from point ‘a’ to point ‘b’. The judges encourage ‘thinking outside the box’, but I’m not sure if this will cause them to take points off or not. We shall see!
I’ll add their comments to this post once I get them.
Other than underlining the headers of likes/dislikes, I left the judge’s text unchanged because I believe the long row of ellipses points shows a break between each of several judge’s thoughts. I assume this because I get praise for having my main character take a certain action alongside criticism for the same action.
JUDGES’ FEEDBACK (6pts)
WHAT THE JUDGE(S) LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY – ……The protagonist’s unusual skills are intriguing. The story’s pacing is good. The prose is solid. ……………………………Very galvanizingly visceral opening paragraph as you describe Jane’s sunjective experience of “The Know.” You skillfully recreate Jane’s world on the more mundane level as well. The image of a psychically-attuned person sleeping in a dead man’s bed is very tantilizing!…………………I loved the insurance investigator’s special abilities and your descriptions of them. Quite unique and well written!…………………………………………
WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK – ……It seems as though it’s too much of a coincidence that someone who works on an oil rig would be named Derrick Hand. Why would the killer go through so much trouble with a potato when he could have just put a pillow over the man’s face? It takes suspension of disbelief that she’d sleep in the dead man’s bed. She didn’t need to do that to examine the medical equipment. ……………………………Wouldn’t she have already checked in on the menu? And if we’re dealing with the smell of raw potato, the menu for a cooked meal wouldn’t apply. Your ending is too abrupt. You need to connect a few more dots between Derrick Hand (VERY funny name for a rig worker, btw) and the potato and Ava. And wouldn’t an adulterer exhibit more caution?…………………It feels like Derrick Hand should have been brought into the story earlier on to keep us guessing. Kind of a “here’s what happened” ending……………………………………….
For the record, Derrick Hand is a job title on an oil rig. I was being ‘cute’ and didn’t think they’d catch that! 😉