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From yon far country blows;
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
Into my Heart an Air that Kills/A.E. Houseman
The Dead Boy
Death Rides Out
On any warm weekend in the fading days of late September, people drank and ate in last of the year's sun. Fridays, they bought barbeque meat and beer and chilled wine for wives or girlfriends. David Farnham knew how things worked. He wasn't immune to the charms of cut grass or cold beer in the sun. By seven or eight in the evening, all the beer and meat would be gone. It was just before six when he put the last case of twelve cans of Carlsberg lager next to a hefty amount of meat in the boot of his Ford. All the important shopping packed, and a tub of coleslaw, too, to show willing.
David nodded to his son - a bright, light-haired boy called George.
'Go on, then.'
George grabbed the trolley and with the air of a man about an important task set out to return it to the Perspex shack where the trolleys hung out.
The days were still hot enough to burn pasty skin, and the nights balmy and sticky.
Those long days were the domain of the old and the parents and their little children. The short nights and the shadows belonged to youth.
Soon, it would be that vague time where day slid into evening, and then night would fall whether it was light out or not. The shift change was arbitrary, nothing to do with the setting sun, and when it came the men and women in their teens or twenties would hit the supermarket for their alcohol and cigarettes. The parents and their young children would retreat to the safety of their brightly lit homes for bed or movies or home deliveries of pizza, Indian, Chinese, or, like the Farnhams, an early evening mountain of charred meat.
The aisles were full with good children, grubby children, and the ones that always seemed to wail (while their parents looked harassed or even frightened by their own offspring). The air was hot and still and the children had been back in school for over two weeks.
Kids and adults both were tired, bothered and pissy from yet another week in an endless procession of weeks.
A man sat in a van outside, watching the people go by in the evening sun. He watched and waited. Parents passed, women who shopped alone in the afternoon, a man who limped along pushing a collection of tied-up trolleys back to base, old and older people, children. He read a newspaper and did not seem to look up, though he did.
Then, at last, the right moment. Opportunity always, always, fell in that man's lap. The man's name was Wayland Redman and it was George Farnham he saw.
Redman remained calm, his heart's rhythm comfortable and steady, and shifted from inertia to action.
It wasn't the smoothest job Wayland Redman ever pulled, but it was sweet enough. He got the boy, he got away. Good enough.
He sat for three hours with a tabloid newspaper spread on the steering wheel before the boy crossed his path. During the hot afternoon he smoked a little, and sometimes squeezed piss into a Starbucks' Frappuccino bottle. Little dribbles, mainly. His prostate wasn't what it used to be.
Wayland had begun to think his day would be a bust. He grew sure he'd go home with nothing but a half-full Frappuccino bottle and a bladder he couldn't empty.
He was an old man, and he thought of the cancer as a kind of balance - when he thought of such things at all. Wayland Redman rarely wondered about things like purpose, and worth, and the darkness in men's hearts. He wasn't a good man, and people said only the good die young. Maybe that was true, and all the old people in the world were left behind because they were like him. But death caught up with everyone, even old fuckers, no matter how sly.
Wayland's hair was stained yellow at the front, grey over the rest of his head, but a full head of hair still. He brushed it back from his forehead every morning as he had for most of his adult life.
This day, he wore a suit on the way to the job. He left his home and walked the short distance to his lock-up where the van waited. The van always started and ran without a grumble. He wasn't meticulous, or especially careful, but a man looked after his tools. He knew that well enough and he always had enough money for the important things - he was very good at what he did, and it paid well. A man with lavish tastes would have been well recompensed for his time, and Wayland's expenses were minimal. His tastes ran to kippers and eggs for breakfast, his expenses to the weekly fee for his room, upkeep for the van, and cigarette money. There was little more he needed.
He was 75 years old and had never been questioned by the police in all his years. He wasn't a pervert. He didn't care about the kids.
The man who paid his bills?
But that's his business, he thought. Not mine.
Wayland's business was the little kid who pushed a trolley toward a trolley shed, or hut, or whatever people called them. Wayland didn't know.
Wayland hadn't the foggiest how old the kid was. Could've been ten, or eight...might be short for his age, or tall, or just right. Wayland never could tell how old a kid was, and never had given a fuck either way. The kid's age didn't matter, nor what happened to him after. Wayland's concern was getting the kid in the van. Nothing else.
Worst case scenario? Some dumb old driver would pull out in front of the van as Wayland drove away. Old people in car parks were a bigger hazard than random policemen, or someone snapping pictures on their phone. He wasn't worried about the van letting him down, because it was in perfect condition. The plates were stolen, and it was old enough that it had no GPS fitted as standard, no anti-theft devices lurking within to fuck him.
The old things were the best.
A painter and decorator's logo was emblazoned down the side of the van. People, if they remembered anything, would remember the name on the side of the van. Show people something big and easy, they don't bother to look at the minutiae.
Old people, heroes, passing coppers...he wasn't worried. He was a lucky man.
He grinned a little at that thought.
With a certain economy of movement, he folded the tabloid newspaper and laid it precisely on the passenger seat. He tossed his cigarette from the window and turned the key in the ignition. The skin on the back of his hand was loose and thin as he gripped the steering wheel. Old man hands, but strong enough.
The van rolled out slowly from between the tightly parked cars. This was England, so he was on the right side of the car. The Ford and the dad were on the left. The kid and the Perspex trolley park or whatever were on his side.
Wayland swerved and stopped a couple of feet ahead, so the kid wasn't in the way of the opening door. He threw the door open. The trolley was in front, the door to the kid's left, the van at his back. Only one way to run, but either way the kid wasn't fast enough and not expecting to be snatched from a supermarket car park.
The old man reached out his gnarled right hand, grabbed the kid's collar and in one smooth movement pulled him across his lap. He jammed the accelerator to the floor and the door swung shut under the momentum.
David Farnham heard his son scream as whoever drove the van - he couldn't see from where he was - snatched his only child. For two or three valuable seconds he didn't have the wherewithal to move, let alone cry out. His feet set, heavy as concrete.
A woman yelled something unintelligible to his ringing ears and the urgency, or just the volume of her shout, set him running. His feet flew and he ran faster than he'd run since he'd been in school, harder than a man of thirty-five who'd not exercised since should. His heart pounded wildly mere moments into his sudden run, partly from the fat in his arteries, but mostly from sheer horror.
Fuck, fuck, fuck...
Thought was, by and large, pushed down until there was nothing but primal fear, though one thought flashed on and off in his burning brain with startling clarity - his mother will kill me.
The van already turned out of the supermarket car park and onto a short one-way road leading to a roundabout, which in turn led to a sloped road up to the motorway. David Farnham felt his son slip away.
His feet slapped on the hard tarmac, his work shoes ill-suited to running on any surface. One of legions of the middle-aged and out of shape men, his shins already ached, his legs tired quickly and his heart thudded so hard his vision wavered.
He imagined he could still hear his son's terrified cries, but the van door was closed and the volume drowned and there was nearly three hundred feet of dead space between father and son.
A deep, low part of David's mind catalogued anything that might be useful. His oxygen-starved brain still ticked away, etching memories into his mind. It was a red van. He couldn't read the license plate. Some bold script stood out on the side and back of the van. 'Archer and Sons Painters and Decorators'.
That refrain was in the top of his mind.
The rest of the information sank down, his subconscious imagining, perhaps, that at some point he might be forced to repeat it all, until he finishing his list with the words, 'And that's all I can remember, officer. It happened too fast. I can't...'
The van speed up the incline that led to the motorway while the father's footsteps slowed.
Why hadn't he got into the car to chase the van?
His phone was in the car.
Shitting hell...I can't even call the police.
His mind worked as fast as a mind can when stars dance in a man's eyes. He ran on, though, because George was in that van and people didn't take kids for a joke.
Ahead, the van joined the motorway. Farnham slowed to a little faster than a walk now. It was pointless, because he could never, ever catch the van.
A car, unnoticed by Farnham, approached from behind. The driver wasn't looking at the road ahead but was busy on his mobile phone arguing his girlfriend. Travelling at just over 50 miles an hour, it clipped David Farnham and did not slow. The driver didn't see Farnham. He wasn't expecting a man to be running on the slip road, and he wasn't thinking about driving at all. Farnham was on the left side of the road. The car's left wing caught his right leg, which snapped instantly and high up - the femur. Break a shin, and a person might stand a while. The femur's the big thigh bone, though. Not a little break. If something hits that one hard enough to snap it, a man will go down. Or, maybe, up.
David went up, over, and twisted in the air.
The driver panicked at the thud on the wing panel, imagining he'd hit a bird or a fox or a dog. In his panic, he dropped his phone in the foot well.
'Jon, for fuck's sake. Jon?'
His girlfriend, still yelling.
The phone slide under Jon's heel. His heel slipped as he tried to brake, then he reached down so his head was below the dashboard to retrieve the phone and joined the traffic on the motorway at the same time.
A baker's van, high-sided, hit the rear of the car. The impact helped the van sideways, only around three or four feet over into the outside lane, but enough for it to take out a Mini trying to pass in the fast lane. The Mini hit the central reservation, bounced, and took out two cars behind it.
Up ahead, clear of the accident, the red Archer and Sons van with George and Wayland Redman was gone.
George's dad lay on the slip road, screaming because his leg was broken badly, his skull cracked from the fall, and his son lost.
From the corner of one bloodied eye he saw the wreck on the motorway.
A Jaguar going too fast hit the pile-up. The car in front - a Vauxhall - flipped end-over-end with the rear impact. Metal flew into the air forty or fifty yards away. David didn't see where a piece of spinning, sheared metal landed because it killed him first and landed afterward. It tore part of his skull and brain away before the metal (just a muffler) bounced three times and rolled to a stop a hundred yards or so from the mess of cars on the road.
A green van with military plates and medical markings slowed as it reached the smouldering carnage. The car behind didn't. It smashed the back of the van in as fire licked slowly at the front of the pile-up. The fire spread quickly, driven in the wind and spilled fuel, toward the green van.
The flames caught fast. The driver, stunned, with blood pouring down his face, didn't react. The van burned, along with the contents of several vials. The chemical compound in the vials vaporised and rose along with the thick smoke - just as the man with fire in his eyes had always intended.
That man's name was Kurt William O'Dell. He stood in the supermarket car park and watched the flames flicker, then grow.
In the ashes that drifted from that fire, the dead days began.