Speaking of Gumroad, here’s my test for it. Two stories (epub and mobi) in a zip file for $2.
Twelve digits, the best genetics science can buy, a PHD from the University of Life and a roaring muscle car. Almost everything a Science Hero could need to put the world to rights and to explore its mysteries but, perhaps, something remains that he could put to good use. A partner and – perhaps – a little humility.
Doc Osmium is the short, neo-pulp tale of a two-fisted scientist unravelling a chain of uncanny coincidence that leads him back to… well, you’ll just have to read to find out.
The Museum was only fifteen minutes from closing when they arrived. The Doc bounded up the stairs two and three at a time, leaping towards the entrance as fast as he could as Susan rummaged for change to pay the parking fee.
“Leave it!” He shouted back at her, his voice carrying surprisingly loudly given the distance and how hard he’d been running. She sprinted to catch up with him as best she could but he was a powerhouse. She only caught him at the turnstile because he paused to cram a fistful of dollars into the donation box before moving in.
“We shut soon!” The woman called from the entrance booth, but the Doc only gave her a cheery wave and kept on running with Susan drawn, apologetically, along in his wake.
The Doc was well ahead of her, out of sight, by the time she reached the genetics exhibit, losing him amongst the giant plastic helices, posters about heritability and the stuffed examples of ring species. Susan wandered, a little lost, they were almost the only people in here, the last few visitors filtering away as the time to closing counted down over the intercom.
Flustered she turned this way and that, looking for the Doc in every shadow until his massive mitts closed on her and dragged her back into an exhibit, huddling her down behind a string of ape-men that roughly delineated the ascent of man.
“Seems as good a place as any,” he grinned, he seemed to be enjoying this far too much, the game, the chase, even though people had died. She was tempted to say something to him but knew it would be futile to try and sway his opinion. The man was as stubborn as he was… interesting.
The museum closed, the lights went out and they were alone in the dark. She was bored and, frankly, she needed to pee. Every time she went to open her mouth the Doc hushed her, pressing a finger against her lips in a manner she found patronising. She took a deep breath to remonstrate with him and he clamped his hand over her mouth. She bit down, hard and he scowled at her, pointing to the exhibit hall ahead of them.
Two shadows moved, a pair of low rent security guards on their night shift. Chattering about television as they shone their torches left and right. Nothing for them to really be worried about so she bit him again, harder, then stopped. There was a ‘plink’ noise as something bounced and rolled along the floor. One guard went flying, treading on something, his feet flying out from under him, shrieking like a little girl as his arms flew out and caught his partner in the temple, both of them falling down with a sickening ‘thump’ and laying still upon the ground.
What were the odds? She didn’t know, couldn’t think to calculate but this whole thing had been a long series of coincidences, extreme chances and strange circumstances. This was just another in the list and she was beginning to get numb to it.
Whoever it was that had thrown that bauble now stepped into the exhibit hall, a stalking shadow, tall and somehow freakish, his long coat sweeping around him.
“Doctor, show yourself!” The man’s voice was harsh, filled with contempt, hatred, a seething animosity that twisted his voice and his features. “I know you’re here,” he snapped his fingers and the lights came back up with a flicker and a crackle. Another coincidence? In the light the man was revealed, a gaunt, skeletal figure with a strange, wedge shaped head and a pronounced widow’s peak, a pinched mouth and a permanent sneer.
The Doc waved his hand downward, telling her silently to hide as he drew himself up to his impressive height and strode purposefully out of the stand, between Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal Man.
“Here I am. As you wanted. You’ve killed people to get me here. So why don’t you tell me who you are and what you want, why you’ve done all this. Why would you do this?”
The man folded his hands neatly behind his back and that sneering face broke into a smile, it didn’t look like it belonged there. “A man who calls himself ‘Osmium’ has the temerity to ask me my name? Well, you can call me Augury,” He ran his hand down the great, plastic double helix that dominated the exhibit. “As to why? It’s because of this. You’re an abomination Doctor, an unnatural thing, every advantage you have you’ve been given but an artificial thing such as you cannot evolve, cannot change. Only given the natural order can we succeed and progress as a species.”
The Doc frowned, deeply. “That was not my choice. I can hardly be held accountable for what my parents did to me before I was even born.”
“True, but you do remain an example of the process and, given your exploits, a temptation for others to follow in their wake and a key that others might seek to replicate the process that they invented.”
“And your stake?”
Augury pulled a ball from the helix model and without looking, tossed it back over his shoulder. Miraculously it hit a strut and stuck in place. “I am a mutant, a product of nature. You are artificial, a tool, a device, an unchanging machine. You’re not even human while I – and those like me – am the future. I must prove my superiority over you.”
Susan could bear it no longer, she stood up and cupped her hands around her mouth, calling to the Doc. “It’s no good Oz, he’s insane. He’s not listening to a word you’re saying.”
Osmium bristled as she showed herself, but the odds were Augury already knew she was there. His massive six-digit hands curled tight until the knuckles were white. “Maybe he’ll listen to REASON.” The Doc twisted with that unnatural speed he’d shown before, that sledgehammer fist moving in a blinding blur towards Augury’s face. Impossibly Augury moved, the very slightest amount and the Doc’s fist went wide, missing him by a hair and smashing into the podium upon which the helix stood. The blow was so powerful that it collapsed, scattering balls in all directions and Susan had little doubt that the Doc had shattered his own fist with that mighty blow, though he didn’t flinch.
“My mutation,” continued Augury as though nothing had happened “is that I can prognosticate. From a set of starting information I can see the permutations, the possibilities, everything that is going to happen. Like a chain of dominoes, events one after another. I have seen this fight, I know exactly what you and your little friend there are going to do. I have seen it all before.”
The Doc snarled and swung out with his booted food, a blow that would shatter rock if it connected but Augury merely flinched back and gave the Doc’s foot a tap with his own, skeletal hand, overbalancing the bigger man and sending him tumbling to the ground.
“It’s futile. You’ve already lost.”
Susan’s mind churned, ran, there was something about the Doc, he was a patronising bastard but he was smart, remarkable, unique. She realised that for all his insistence, all his attitude and bravado in this instance, he was screwed. Augury was right.
Or was he?
The Doc stumbled to his feet again, nursing his broken hand, clenching his jaw in frustration. His indomitable will wouldn’t let him admit defeat, even when he was apparently fated to lose and he lifted METHOD, hoping – against the odds – to crack Augury’s skull, a man to whom everything was a game, a puzzle, the mere numbers of probability, of chance.
“Wait!” Susan shouted out.
The Doc’s fist halted just before swinging, Augury’s smug face waiting for a blow that never came.
“There’s a paradox! He thinks he’s superior to you because he’s a natural mutation and you’re made.” Susan strode forward, picking her way through the balls and struts that now littered the ground, her finger jabbing, accusative, into Augury’s face. “But your mutation, your ability, you see everything as unbending fate. A chain of events following an inevitable pattern. If that’s the case then what’s the difference between you? Everything merely unfolds according to mathematical certainty. You’re just as engineered as he is!”
Augury’s face fell. “What?”
“Turn your talent on yourself and tell us what you see.” She spat and watched as his eyes glazed over, twitching left and right as the numbers swam in his head.
The Doc wasn’t one to wait though and his fist, suspended in time during Susan’s diatribe, snapped out and cracked into Augury’s skull as doubt flickered in his twisted features. He collapsed like a bundle of coat hangers, his nose spread over his face as the Doc stood triumphant over his unconscious body and shook out his hand, cradling his broken fist against his chest.
“Thank you Susan,” he said after a moment, with a great weariness and a genuine humility and sincerity. “I couldn’t have beaten him without you.”
Susan just nodded and supported him as he staggered, the pain finally cutting through his will. “You were the same. Both Newtonians. I remembered what you said, back on the flats.”
“Not any more.” The door opened before them as they stepped out into the cool night air and the glow of the city lights.
“A man who can admit he’s wrong?” Susan laughed as she helped him down towards the Corvette.
“I’m a scientist Susan, first and foremost. You test a hypothesis and if it is wrong you revise it. That we beat him… well, that demonstrates that the universe is too complex and random to be predicted in this way.”
Susan nodded as they reached the car. “Perhaps I’d better drive?”
The Doc nodded and then smiled in the streetlight, looking down at his massive six-digit fist and lifting it to his mouth, kissing his knuckles. “METHOD…” He laughed, deep and booming and slid into the passenger seat. The roar of the engine herald of further adventures to come.
Osmium’s Corvette screamed across the city like a barely-tamed tiger with Susan clinging hopefully to the seat, not trusting to her harness given the Doctor’s erratic driving and devil-may-care approach to the rules of the road. She didn’t really want to distract him, but things were nagging at her.
“I still barely know anything about you.” She screamed over the guttural roar of the engine and the whipping of the wind about her face, streaming her hair out behind her.
“Do you really need to?” The Doc shouted back, turning left suddenly, throwing her body back and forth. One of his eyes was on the road and another on his lap where a map of the city and a business directory jostled for primacy.
“If I’m going to keep helping you, yes!” Susan yelled, leaning back to him and gripping onto his arm to hold herself steady.
“If?” The Doc turned and grinned to her, taking his eyes off the road and steaming past a parked car with barely an inch to spare. “I think you’re going to be with me a while, we can get to know each other after the mystery is solved. Alright?”
“Over dinner at the Lamb’s Grill Cafe?”
Susan’s mouth fell open. He still wasn’t paying attention to her questions but the tone of his voice. That was the first time he’d treated her as a woman, rather than a colleague or someone just along for the ride. Her mouth opened and closed several more times but he’s completely derailed her with a simple comment.
The Corvette screeched to a halt in a downtown side street, right in front of an old shop that had definitely seen better days. Without waiting the Doc scrambled out of the car and strode into the shop, the bell chiming and the door slamming shut before she’d even gotten out of her harness. Damned, impulse, great, galoot that he was. She slammed the door turning from surprised to annoyed on a dime before she followed him in.
The bell above the door chimed and she found herself surrounded by a wonderland of boardgames and old wooden toys. The kind of thing nobody gave a damn about any more, at least not the kids. The Doc was deep in conversation with the grey-haired owner at the counter, gesturing with the little plastic dominoes, so she took a little time to look around by herself.
There were boxes of finely crafted wooden bricks, imported sets of Mah-Jong, chess and chequers, there were puzzle boxes, play-chests, rocking horses and all manner of carved toys from nodding ducks to spinning tops. She was too young for much of this to mean much to her, but she ran her fingers over the smooth wood and admired what she saw, though her hands came away with a thin coating of dust. Business can’t have been good.
The old man shuffled into the back, disappearing from view, leaving the two of them alone in the store for the moment.
“So why are we here?” Susan asked, drifting up behind the Doc as he leant over the counter.
“Those weren’t just any dominoes. They might be cheap plastic, but they’re also old. You can tell by the yellowing. More modern plastics don’t age like that. Wherever they came from also had to be old and there aren’t that many places that can be selling old sets of dominoes can there? Not in a modern city like this. This seemed the most likely place and if our missing ‘friend’ is as clever as he seems to be then he would have anticipated that this would be the place I’d come to.”
Susan baulked. “So… the one who caused the crash and set the police on us… knows we’re here?”
“Or at least knew we would come here.”
“Is it safe?”
The Doc opened his mouth to answer but was interrupted by a sudden and terrific crash from the back of the store. Without pause he vaulted over the counter, Susan not far behind, as they rushed to find the old man.
There was a smell of smoke as the Doc smashed through the door into the back room. The room was lit by flickering orange light, no bulb, just a length of flex hanging from the ceiling. The old man had tumbled from a ladder, candle in hand and the dust and papers strewn about the floor had caught almost immediately. He lay, his leg twisted, close to the flames, a box of old, cheap, imported dominoes still clutched in his hand even as he writhed and twisted in pain.
The Doc gathered the old man up in his muscular arms as the flames leapt from shelf to shelf. Susan took off her jacket and tried to beat out the fire, but it was moving too fast. Sweating and blackened she tried to keep the flames away from Osmium and the old man, beating them back though they were spreading so damn fast, almost unnaturally fast.
The Doc stopped at the entrance, silhouetted by the flames that were already spreading through the front of the store and turned back to her. “You pick, which way out?” The old man was limp now in his arms and his face was a mask of frustration and annoyance.
Susan blinked, pausing a moment from her beating of the flames. The Doc was normally such a take charge guy and suddenly he wanted her advice? She shook her head, they couldn’t afford to think about it, to wait. “Out the back, less fuel for the fire there and the fire’s not going to be as hot.” The Doc nodded and let her lead the way, beating out the patches of fire spreading across the walls as they scrambled for the back door.
It was locked, she put her shoulder to it and then gave it a kick but didn’t have the strength. “Doc!” She cried. He was their only chance and she’d seen how strong he was. Without even putting the old man down the Doc slammed his foot into the door, propelling it off its hinges and out into the street, smoke sucked out with it as they emerged, coughing, into the light.
They lay the old man down, Susan’s scorched jacket as his pillow. The Doc prised the scorched domino set from his hands while Susan checked him over. “His leg’s broken, at his age…”
“The paramedics can deal with him.” The Doc showed little compassion, tearing open the domino box and dumping the little pieces onto the ground with a clatter, triumphantly hauling out a folded pamphlet hidden behind the pieces.
“What? You didn’t know how to play before?” Susan looked up angrily from the injured man and waved to the paramedics and firemen that were running into view. “This man’s hurt!”
The Doc thrust the pamphlet into her face, it wasn’t instruction, it was a flyer for the Utah Museum of Natural History. “He’s one man and he isn’t dead. Whoever is behind all this has killed at least once, hurt this man and put both of us in mortal danger. They’re a danger to far more people than one old shopkeeper. The greater good must prevail.” He actually sounded irritated and she couldn’t argue with his logic when it came to it, but she could argue with his lack of compassion.
“Every single person is valuable. That shouldn’t have been in that box sure, but why do you think this is part of this master mind’s scheme? If there even is a master mind.”
Osmium tore open the leaflet and stabbed one gloved finger down at the page. “There’s a display about genetics. I believe that’s where we need to be, after closing.”
“How can you know that?” Susan moved away, leaving the paramedics to deal with the old man, the firemen starting to do their work as she and the Doc began to pace back around the burning building, back to the car, which was in the way of the fire department.
“Because,” the Doc said with a sigh as they clambered back into the Corvette. “I think this whole thing is about me somehow.”
Susan snorted at his ego and arrogance.
“About you? It might be about me for all you know.”
“No, I’m not normal Susan. My parents were scientists. Far ahead of their time. The museum, the display, it’s a clue that this person knows my secret. I was my parent’s greatest experiment.”
The Doc sighed and pulled his heavy gloves from his hand, stretching them with a groan of palpable relief. “Look.”
Susan frowned and looked down at his hands. Like so much of the rest of him they were tattooed.
“Look closer, read.”
She read, each finger and thumb was tattooed with a letter. When he held his fists up two words could be seen.
Wait… he had an extra finger on each hand. No, not fingers, an extra thumb, in opposition to the other one. Thumbs that functioned. Susan’s head swam looking at him, this was impossible, even mutation, even freaks of nature… the odds of such a thing happening to someone were astronomical.
“Not just the thumbs. My intelligence, my lifespan, my strength, my immune system. I was made, not born. My parents uncovered the secrets of human germ plasm and they used that knowledge to make me the best I could be.” He gripped that strange steering wheel and she understood now why it was the shape it was, his strange hands fit the grip perfectly, tighter than any normal person could manage.
“Our enemy knows. They’re sending me a message. Let’s go and say hello.”
The Corvette roared anew, the blazing shop left in their wake as the grim-faced Osmium and the stunned Susan sped across the city to, finally, meet their foe.
The Corvette roared like a lion, the race-tuned, three-hundred-and-twenty-seven cubic inch engine thrusting the car along at terrifying speed. The sound of that snarling motor was almost loud enough to drown out the wail of sirens from the police cruisers swarming behind them like a battery of barracuda. The Doc hurled the car into another bone-shaking turn, leaving long stripes of rubber on the road and a burning smell behind them before rocketing down into another street, headlong into traffic.
Susan didn’t know why she’d come with him, she didn’t know why she hadn’t run screaming at the sight of his car once they’d reached it, all chrome and blower and a strange-looking steering wheel, she certainly didn’t know why she wasn’t screaming for help or hurling herself bodily from the car to take her chances, rather than waiting for the inevitable crash.
“I have no idea why they’re chasing us!” Hollered Doc Osmium, terrifyingly taking his eyes off the road to look at her. Her nails dug into the leather of the seat and she squeaked, raising her hand to point at the road ahead as a bus whistled past her right ear, inches away.
“Might it be something to do with the speed you’re driving?” Susan screamed over the roaring engine, the wailing sirens and the honking of distressed car horns.
“We’re supposed to have an understanding!” The Doc swung the car into another corner with a banshee wails of protesting tyres and hurtling forward again, weaving through the oncoming cars with unerring accuracy.
“They don’t seem to think so!” Susan leaned across the car, close to his ear as she yelled, trying to make herself heard.
“Another strange coincidence! We should get to the bottom of it!” The Doc grinned his easy grin and swerved left without looking, almost clipping a police cruiser that darted out of the side road to try and cut them off.
“Hard to investigate anything with an APB out on you!” Susan twisted her head, hair whipped into her face by the airflow around the convertible, there were still three, maybe four cruisers, doggedly on their tail and, hair stuck to her face or not she gave the doc a frown.
The gave a throaty growl and hauled forward again with even greater speed. Now the doc was paying attention, eyes fixed rigidly to the road and she could see his lips moving, counting down. Then he turned and she finally screamed in terror, he was turning too fast, too soon, there was a blur of brick and concrete and she flew forward against her harness, her scream choked as she felt as if she was being crushed into the harness and then as she flew back into her seat doc’s hand slammed like steel over her mouth and stopped her from breathing in and screaming again.
They were in an alley, inches to spare either side of the car, stopped now, engine off, the metal of the engine pinging and clicking as it began to cool down. Behind them she heard sirens wailing and rushing past, one after another until all their pursuers vanished, chasing their imaginary route across the city. Once they were clear, the doc’s hand moved from her mouth and she gasped for breath.
“You bastard. I thought we were going to die!” She gasped, balling up her fist and punching the doc hard in the shoulder, it was like punching a wall.
“We had to lose the police and get some space to think and to formulate a plan.” He explained, calmly. “I think if we’re going to get them to stop chasing us…”
“Chasing you.” Susan folded her arms and gave him a glare.
“As you wish, chasing me then. Now, where’s the last place they would look and the best place to find out why they’re after me?”
Susan knew, but she wished she didn’t.
The door swung in front of Susan before the shove of her hand as she strode into the police station and slapped her hands down upon the sargeant’s desk with a loudness and determination that felt utterly unconvincing to her. She swallowed back her nervousness and stared at the surprised policeman behind the counter, raising her voice to a shrill and ear-piercing shriek of indignation, trying to ignore the breaking squeak of fear.
“I demand to see a senior officer, I have a complaint!” She screamed into the dace of the man at the desk, drawing eyes from every corner.
Behind her, moving in plain sight, came the doc, barging through the door of the station and striding confidently, as though he belonged there, across the entryway and through a door to the back marked ‘No Civilians Beyond this Point’. Now he was inside, her outrage and nervousness lost their convincing edge and she began to bluster before the sudden attention of several police officers, some of whom seemed to be trying to judge whether they knew her.
The door swung shut behind Doc Osmium and he strode forward through the desks as though he belonged there, an attitude and a conjurer’s trick that he found tended to convince people that you did belong there, more than any badge or ID card you cared to mention. Head held high the people at the desks couldn’t get a good look at him and he swept by with no indecision, snatching up a pile of papers as he strode forward and tucking them in his arm as his confident pace took him deeper and deeper into the heart of the thin blue line.
The Doc didn’t know where he was going but if there was one thing about public building you could rely on it was clear signposting. Left, right and left again and he was striding into the records office, slamming down the stack of papers on a desk with a thump that startled the poor desk-jockey sat there nearly out of his seat. The Doc made his gamble.
“You sent the wrong record up to traffic, they’re pretty pissed.”
Panic clouded the man’s mind and he swallowed nervously, springing up from his seat and dashing off in the direction of the traffic department offices. The Doc slide down into his chair and began rifling through the records, looking for anything that could tell him why they were after him. They’d been supposed to have a deal, the Doc would help on certain cases and, in exchange, they would leave him alone most of the time. Something had clearly gone wrong with that.
Even as he flipped through the records, relying on his superior peripheral vision to alert him if he saw something relevant, he noticed something about the record-keeper’s desk. The peeled back plastic from a sticking-plaster, tucked to one side, brown with specks of blood. Almost the same instant he found the references to himself and frowned at the number thoughtfully, not even a glance over his shoulder – that would look nervous – as he got back up and wandered over to the stacks.
His file wasn’t where it should be, the lazy desk jockey had filed it in the wrong place, the last digit of the reference number obscured by blood and then wiped away, the pencilled in number faded to near illegibility, the misfiling placing him on Salt Lake City’s most wanted, rather than being flagged up as a friend to the force.
The Doc suppressed a growl of frustration that so much could come down to a stupid mistake, another coincidence like the ones at the crash site but he needed a city’s resources to uncover what was going on. This was correctable though, a few strokes of a pen, a refiling and note on the clerk’s desk and things should be sorted out in a matter of hours, briskly efficient for the police force.
Now there was just the matter of Susan…
It had been some time, maybe two hours, maybe more, since she’d first walked into the station and once they’d worked out that she was the passenger in the Doc’s car she’d been manhandled, cuffed and bundled into a holding cell to await questioning. At least they’d taken the cuffs off once she was locked up but there was nothing to do in here, unless you fancied reading The Bible or The Book of Mormon and, well, she didn’t. Instead she paced the cell and went over everything in it, every inch of wall, every scratched bit of graffiti, the little sleeping bench, even the toilet, just for something to do, comfort in being methodical.
Tucked into the edge of the mattress her fingers found two tiny lumps of plastic and she plucked them out, a pair of dominoes – of all things. What was the use of that? You couldn’t play a game with two dominoes, these cells were for one person so you couldn’t play a game or gamble. Susan flipped them over in her hands, they were nice little things, very tactile, weighty for their size and she wasted a minute or two just turning them between her fingers until there was a cough from the door.
The eyes peering through the slot she recognised, the Doc, the very man who’d gotten her into this mess in the first place. The eyes were replaced by a grin and the door swung open to reveal perhaps the least inconspicuous man in the universe, unmolested by the police and walking about, free as a daisy.
“Your chariot awaits my lady.” The big man bowed ostentatiously and Susan sniffed haughtily an strutted out, pausing only to give the big man a punch on the arm.
“We hardly know each other and you’re using me. How’d you get them to free me?” The answer presented itself in the form of two unconscious police slumped over their desks with bruises on their necks.
“They’ll be fine, just a little pressure-point tap it’ll just take a while for everything to get sorted out and there’s too many coincidences here too.” The Doc got her up to speed as they slipped out the back through the garage and out onto the street, keeping off the main streets as they made their way back to the Corvette to wait for police bureaucracy to catch up with events.
As they sat down in the warm leather of the seats again, Susan fished out the dominoes that she’d pocketed from the cell and tossed them onto the dashboard. The Doc froze, instantly, staring at them with an intensity so fierce Susan could almost hear the gears whirring in his mind.
“What? They’re just dominoes.”
The Doc reached across her and stood them up on the dashboard, tapping one so it fell into the other and knocked it down. “No, someone’s sending us a message. None of these coincidences are coincidences. Not the crash, not Jose, not the police, not these dominoes, not even you. Someone is doing this on purpose, stretching my credulity, making a challenge and it’s one I have to answer.”
“And you just assume I’ll go along with it?” Susan folded her arms and stared at him challengingly, though his gaze was hard to meet.
“You wouldn’t be here if you weren’t going to come along the rest of the way.”
Susan opened her mouth to argue with him, but then snapped shut again. He was right damn him. “So… where to Osmium? We know someone’s sending you a message, but how do we find them?”
He held up the domino between his thumb and forefinger. “We go back to the previous domino in the chain.”
Heat haze shimmered over the salt flats making the surface look like water. Doctor Green took a swig from her bottle of water, grimacing at the tepid warmth of it, and she’d only been out of the car for a short while. You could see for miles on a good day but today the view was obscured by smoke. Wreckage lay over some distance, wheels and foil-thin aluminium and titanium. The kind of thing yokels might mistake for a UFO crash. She sighed and flipped open her notepad, rechecking her notes while the medical team zipped up the body bag and the police hovered around her.
“Can you tell us anything yet?”
The depressingly and ostentatiously Mormon sheriff had been a pain in her backside since she’d arrived, standing over her shoulder while she examined the body and the wreckage of the Swift IV, the latest foolhardy attempt at a land speed record with a rocket powered cigar tube on wheels.
“Anything I tell you is only going to be preliminary.” She sighed, pushing her hair back from her face, the sweat slicking it out of her eyes. “I think it’s safe to say he died almost instantly when the steering column pierced him, speared his heart and broke his spin in two places. That seems the most likely cause of death. As to the vehicle’s cause of failure, you’re better off asking the mechanics.”
“How fascinating.” This new interruption was a deep, basso rumble of a voice that almost made her jump out of her shoes. It seemed to come out of nowhere and she and sheriff Bralan turned as one to look at the source.
He was a towering man, unbelievably not sweating in the noon sun as it glared off the flat. He wore a thin white shirt and tan-coloured trousers, heavy walking boots, his only concession to the sun a pair of classic, black, aviator sunglasses and a white cloth tied as a bandanna around his neck. Inexplicably he wore heavy gloves over his hand, one of them holding a slung pack over his shoulder. There wasn’t an ounce of spare fat on him. He didn’t look like a gross, overblown caricature, not a body builder, more like an anatomical diagram or a classical Greek statue, though the look was marred by the strange tattoos that covered his cheek, jaw and neck, vanishing down beneath the shirt.
“He with you?” The sheriff drawled, hand going down to his gunbelt, a move that the giant reacted to with only the barest flicker of a smile.
“No.” She said. “I’d remember him. He’s not part of the car crew either.”
The sheriff drew his revolver and levelled it at the big man. “We got to account for everyone here mister…”
“Doctor.” The big man interrupted.
“…and this might well be sabotage. So you’re going to have to come with me.” The sheriff finished, undaunted.
“A crashed supercar, a dead driver – judging from the bag – the police are suspicious and what I take to be a scientist or doctor already on the scene and you want me to waste my time coming with you to answer tedious questions?” The big man stared at the sheriff as though he were something one might find upon overturning a rotting log. “I am Doctor Oswald Stone and I was out walking. If I am to get to the bottom of this intriguing mystery I cannot afford to waste time with you.”
She went to open her mouth and interject but, his authority questioned the sheriff was in no mood to play nice. He cocked back the hammer on his revolver as his deputy crab-scuttled behind the giant man, hand to his own gunbelt.
The big man give her an apologetic look and then there was an abrupt blur of motion. One muscular leg snapped back as straight as a laser beam and hit the deputy just beneath his ribs. There was a brief, loud, woof of expelled air as he flew back several metres and slid to a halt, slumped over himself desperately trying to breathe.
The sheriff did no better. The big man’s gloved hand grasped his pistol with impossible strength and tore it from his hand in the same motion as he kicked the deputy, flicking the gun away with a casual gesture that sent it flying out across the flats, vanishing into the heat haze.
“If you can find your gun, you’re welcome to try and take me in for questioning.” The big man said, returning to his casual, relaxed stance and turning to her.
“If you’re a doctor as well this could get terribly confusing. Call me Doc or Osmium, and you are?”
Her heart pounding in her chest with fear she swallowed it back and answered him. “Doctor Susan Green, pathology mostly, but I dabble and do medical support for things like this. What are you a doctor of?” She felt like an idiot saying that, given what just happened, but banal pleasantries were better than being kicked.
“Oh, life, the cosmos, everything and anything interesting. I’ll call you Susan then, if you don’t mind.” Doc shifted his pack back into place on his shoulder and began pacing over towards the wreckage. With the sherrif swearing a blue streak and chasing after his gun and the deputy trying to work up enough breath to vomit, she followed hurriedly in Doc’s trail like the tail of a comet, finding herself babbling about the accident.
Eli Grange has been the best driver, on paper, three previous record attempts, jet fighter experience, inhumanly good reflexes. The car had been checked over a dozen times. The safety harness and other life-preserving equipment was all in good order. Everything had some form of redundancy and safety and yet… something had gone wrong. On the first proper run the rear end had drifted and the car had tumbled end over end, side over side until it was completely wrecked.
The Doc crouched amongst the main body of the debris, listening, asking questions, technical questions about the wheels, about the chassis, about the engine. Intelligent, seeking questions that she couldn’t always answer, but he seemed to be finding his way. She glanced about her in a panic and saw the rest of the pit crew heading over, angry, curious, wondering who the hell this man was perhaps, just as she was.
“Who the hell is this guy?” Mick, the chief engineer on the project lumbered up, a big guy but heavy with it, unlike this ‘Doc’ person.
“Doc Osmium.” Susan answered, without a trace of humour, still unsettled from the brief fight. “He’s dangerous.”
“AHA!” The Doc shouted, emerging from the debris holding a tiny piece of metal, startling them both as more of the engineering crew arrived.
“You can’t go messing with that! We need to work out what caused the accident.” Mick thundered, stamping towards the Doc with a look of murderous intent. The Doc thrust the tiny piece of metal beneath his nose bringing him to a halt.
“The lox regulator valve. There’s a tiny grain of sand between the washer and the nut, keeping it fractionally open. I surmise that this caused a tiny fluctuation in the fuel feed to the car’s rocket which was enough – at full acceleration – to throw the tail off, leading to the crash. As to the rest, the abruptness of the crash and the fact that it was side on seems to have tumbled the car in such a way as your safety precautions were only minimally effective. An enormous string of bad luck…”
Mick stared at the washer as the others arrived. “Bad luck?”
Before the question could be pursued any further the Doc abruptly froze, slowly raising his hands from his sides. Susan’s head jolted around, expecting to see the sheriff threatening the big man again but it wasn’t, it was Jose from the pit crew, an ugly slab of an automatic pistol in his hand, levelled at the Doc.
“Couldn’t just let me get away could you Osmium?” Jose’s voice was different, hard-edged, he meant to use the gun, she could tell. “Had to follow me, all the way out here, track me down and put me away. Madre de dios man, they were only samples.”
The Doc’s face twisted into a feral snarl. “Irreplacable samples collected by Charles Darwin himself, priceless. Would you believe me if I told you that I wasn’t actually here for you? This is all the most terrible coincidence.”
Jose shook his head and laughed. “That smooth tongue might be a hit with the ladies Osmium, but it’s not going to get you out of this.”
Susan saw his knuckles tighten around the trigger and she acted. Her boot caught Jode – if that was his name – in the back of the knee and sent him down to the ground. The pistol barked, the bullet going wide, sparks flying as it ricocheted off the car’s wreckage. With Jose down the Doc moved with that unnatural precision and speed again, grabbing a blackened piece of metal and hurling it like a discus. The heavy sheet slammed into Jose’s throat with a sickening ‘Chud!’ and he fell back, stone dead to the flat ground, the metal embedded halfway through his neck.
Susan stared wide eyed at the Doc as he picked his way out of the debris, the rest of the crew keeping well back from him now as he crouched over Jose’s body.
“Carlos Ortega, a thief and a murderer, wanted by Interpol for theft to order. The funny thing is that I wasn’t here looking for him at all. I really was just walking.” The big man looked up at Susan and frowned, his face creasing, the tattoos on his cheek twitching as his jaw muscles worked.
“I happen to be walking here, he happens to be here, there’s an accident that is wildly unlikely stemming from a tiny flaw in an otherwise perfect machine… and you’re here.” His steely eyes settled on Susan.
“So? It’s just blind chance, isn’t it? Things like this do happen… synchronicity they call it don’t they?”
The Doc stood up again. “Synchronicity is what we call it when causally unrelated events occur that seem to hold meaning beyond coincidence. In a truly random universe we might brush it off but I’m afraid I’m still a bit of a stuffy old Newtonian, clockwork universe fan. I’m a big supporter of cause and effect, even in quantum physics, and this seems to stretch the odds a little too far for me. Something more is going on.”
He stepped forward, those Olympian features twisting into a wry and enticing grin as he offered her his massive, gloved hand.
“Let’s find out what that is, shall we?”