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Harry Stayt

Har­ry Stayt is an out­door activ­i­ties instruc­tor who lives alone in a cot­tage on the edge of a huge, mad-made lake buried deep in the coun­try­side. Har­ry lives for the out­doors and can’t stand being shut away. He typ­i­cal­ly begins each day with some stren­u­ous exer­cise, and today is no excep­tion. And yet, unbe­knownst to Har­ry or any­one else, today will be a day like no oth­er. In the space of an hour and a half — just over eleven miles of run­ning — the world will change forever.

Giv­en the choice, if they didn’t need to get up and go to work, school or what­ev­er each day, most peo­ple would prob­a­bly pre­fer to spend their morn­ings in bed. Har­ry Stayt is not like most peo­ple. Har­ry is up, washed, dressed and ready to run by eight o’clock at the very lat­est, usu­al­ly much ear­li­er. Har­ry does not enjoy being cooped up inside. He is an out­bound activ­i­ties instruc­tor, qual­i­fied to teach (amongst oth­er things) rock climb­ing, abseil­ing, cav­ing, raft­ing, canoe­ing, kayak­ing, moun­tain bik­ing and hill walk­ing. The sum­mer hol­i­day sea­son has just end­ed and he has no lessons booked for the best part of the next three weeks. For the first time since ear­ly sum­mer he now has some time to him­self. Har­ry being Har­ry, he intends to spend much of this time doing most of the things he’s usu­al­ly paid to teach.

Har­ry loves to run. He rents a small cot­tage in a vil­lage which is nes­tled on the banks of a large, man-made lake. A sin­gle, con­tin­u­ous road of some eight miles in length encir­cles the lake, and this road is his dai­ly run­ning route.

#

Har­ry sat on the front step of the cot­tage and tied his laces. He looked out over the stun­ning view which greet­ed him. There could be no bet­ter way to start each day, he decid­ed. The world was silent save for bird song, the rip­pling of the water on the sur­face of the lake and the occa­sion­al dis­tant rum­ble of farm machin­ery. And if this was his favourite time of day, he thought, then ear­ly autumn was his favourite time of year; a brief, qui­et inter­lude between the busy sum­mer hol­i­days and win­ter snow and ice.

This morn­ing was pic­ture per­fect. The sky above him was clear, unin­ter­rupt­ed blue, and the lush green­ery all around was just show­ing the first signs of begin­ning to turn. The shades of green which had been present all sum­mer were about to dis­ap­pear and be replaced by yel­lows, oranges and brit­tle browns. And the air … Christ, even the air tast­ed good this morn­ing. Cool but not too cold, dry but not parched, and with a very gen­tle breeze which blew at him from across the sur­face of the water.

All around Har­ry, the pop­u­la­tion of the small vil­lage were begin­ning their morn­ing rit­u­als and dai­ly rou­tines. As he locked the door of the cot­tage and zipped the key into his pock­et, he looked around at the few hous­es and shops near­by and smiled inward­ly. What was it about human nature that made peo­ple so des­per­ate to restrict them­selves with rou­tines like this? He didn’t under­stand it. He’d moved as far away as he could from the city to escape the relent­less bore­dom and monot­o­nous famil­iar­i­ty of the rat-race, but even here, out in the mid­dle of nowhere, peo­ple still seemed to crave these rit­u­al-like pat­terns of life. All around him the same peo­ple did the same things they always did: Gill Rogers was open­ing the vil­lage store, putting the same goods out on dis­play in exact­ly the same place as yes­ter­day. Her hus­band was tak­ing the usu­al deliv­ery of bread, milk and papers. The small school gates were open and chil­dren were begin­ning to arrive. It was hap­pen­ing every­where he looked. In some ways he was no bet­ter, he had to admit. He often ran the same route at the same time of day and he always per­formed a well-rehearsed stretch­ing and loos­en­ing exer­cise rou­tine before going out. Although he want­ed to believe oth­er­wise, maybe he was as reg­i­ment­ed as the rest of them.

Warm-up com­plete, Har­ry checked the door was locked, then start­ed his stop­watch and then began to run. He moved slow­ly at first, know­ing that the first few foot­steps were cru­cial. He’d had more than his fair share of avoid­able injuries over the last cou­ple of years. It suit­ed his body to start slow and grad­u­al­ly build up to some­thing resem­bling a decent pace. This was just a sim­ple train­ing run. He didn’t intend over­do­ing it.

He jogged out through the vil­lage, acknowl­edg­ing a cou­ple of bemused folk as he passed them, then ran across the dam and began his usu­al clock­wise cir­cuit of the lake. He’d done this many times and knew it was more sen­si­ble to run clock­wise because the major­i­ty of the chil­dren who attend­ed the school lived on farms and in oth­er vil­lages to the east. The tim­ing of his run today had been care­ful­ly con­sid­ered so that he wouldn’t reach the busiest stretch of road until the school traf­fic had been and gone. He expect­ed the rest of the route to be qui­et. Har­ry didn’t expect to see more than a hand­ful of peo­ple while he was out and that was how he liked it.

#

Three miles in, and the vil­lage had long been lost in the dis­tance. A heavy canopy of trees bowed over the road, giv­ing Har­ry shade from the cool but relent­less sun­light. The branch­es changed the sounds around him, muf­fling the very dis­tant rum­ble of vil­lage noise and traf­fic, mak­ing every bird­song and ani­mal noise seem direc­tion­less, and ampli­fy­ing the con­stant thud of his feet pound­ing the ground. Even his breath­ing seemed inor­di­nate­ly loud now.

The peace and tran­quil­li­ty was dis­turbed momen­tar­i­ly. The sound of a car’s engine (which could have been any­where between half a mile and a cou­ple of miles away) was abrupt­ly and unex­pect­ed­ly silenced. Har­ry then thought he heard the crack and spit of split­ting wood. It could have been any­thing, he quick­ly decid­ed, but it was prob­a­bly noth­ing. One of the local farm­ers work­ing their land on the steep banks of the lake per­haps? An off-sea­son sight­seer? He ran on regardless.

The lake was rough­ly quadri­lat­er­al in shape. He had already run along its longest side and had just fol­lowed a sharp bend in the road around to the right. He was now run­ning along the lake’s short­est edge and the dense for­est of trees to his left, the grey tar­mac ahead and the glare of the sun bounc­ing off the water’s calm sur­face to his right were all he could see. His foot scuffed against some­thing unex­pect­ed­ly and he looked down and saw that, for some rea­son, the ground here was cov­ered with debris. Slow­ing down but not stop­ping, he tripped and kicked his way through the tan­gled branch­es of a sapling that had been felled and dragged across the road. Hit by a car per­haps? A few metres fur­ther still and he saw long, dark, arc-shaped scars which stretched omi­nous­ly across the tar­mac, then more debris where some­thing had churned up the mud and grav­el at the side of the road. To Harry’s right now was a steep bank which dropped down towards the water. The tyre marks end­ed there. He knew what had hap­pened before he’d seen the car.

Slow­ing down to walk­ing pace, he neared the edge of the bank and cau­tious­ly peered over. Some five metres or so ahead and below him, wedged tight­ly between two stur­dy trees as if it had been caught, was the wreck of a small red car. Pant­i­ng with the effort of his run but still in full con­trol, Har­ry quick­ly and care­ful­ly clam­bered down the bank, know­ing that he had to help. He hadn’t seen any­one else in the last half hour and chances were it would prob­a­bly be at least as long again before any­one else passed by. It was down to him alone to try and help who­ev­er it was who had crashed. As he made his rapid descent, it occurred to him that there didn’t seem any obvi­ous rea­son why the acci­dent had hap­pened. There were no oth­er vehi­cles around. Had it been a mechan­i­cal fail­ure? Swerv­ing to avoid an ani­mal wan­der­ing across the road? Had some­thing hap­pened to the dri­ver? A heart attack per­haps? What­ev­er the rea­son, it didn’t mat­ter now. Deal­ing with the after­math was all that was important.

The driver’s door had been wedged shut by the awk­ward angle at which the car had come to rest. The wind­screen was shat­tered (it had been pierced by a thick, low-grow­ing branch) and he pushed the remain­ing glass out of the way and peered inside. The dri­ver was dead. The same branch which had smashed through the win­dow had impaled the chest of the stocky, grey-haired man. Jolt­ed out of his seat by the sud­den, vio­lent crash, the man’s face had smashed into the steer­ing wheel. Blood, bone and shat­tered teeth drib­bled down his chin. The appalling injuries suf­fered by the dri­ver were so extreme that, for a few sec­onds, Har­ry didn’t even notice he had a pas­sen­ger along­side him. A woman of sim­i­lar age, she was dead too. Har­ry looked into her life­less face and tried to work out why. She was still anchored into her seat by her safe­ty belt, and had no obvi­ous wounds oth­er than traces of blood around her mouth. Per­haps her injuries were inter­nal? A qual­i­fied first aider, he instinc­tive­ly leant across and checked for a pulse. Nothing.

Harry’s options were lim­it­ed. Did he stop with the bod­ies and wait for anoth­er motorist to pass (which would like­ly be some time) or did he try and get back to the vil­lage to get help? Although hard­er, the sec­ond option was clear­ly the most sen­si­ble. The peo­ple in the car were dead; there was noth­ing to be gained from stop­ping with them. Har­ry quick­ly scram­bled back up to the road, brushed him­self down, then start­ed run­ning again, con­tin­u­ing his clock­wise cir­cuit of the lake.

What start­ed as a gen­tle train­ing run had become some­thing far more dif­fi­cult. As well as hav­ing to con­tend with the shock of what he’d seen, Har­ry also now need­ed to get his body work­ing again. He’d only stopped run­ning for a cou­ple of min­utes, but that had been more than long enough for his mus­cles to begin to tight­en. He forced him­self to try and main­tain a steady pace, but his head kept telling him to run faster.

Final­ly anoth­er sound dis­turbed the over­whelm­ing silence. Har­ry could hear a plane in the dis­tance. He round­ed a gen­tle cor­ner at the bot­tom of the lake and began to run the rel­a­tive­ly straight two and a half mile stretch of road back up into the vil­lage. The sun­light flick­ered through the trees, blind­ing him inter­mit­tent­ly. The run was get­ting hard­er. He was begin­ning to feel cold and the ends of his fin­gers and toes had begun to tin­gle. Had the tem­per­a­ture dropped, or was it shock? He’d run this route many times before and he knew he was more than capa­ble of com­plet­ing the dis­tance, but now he was begin­ning to doubt him­self. And the plane’s engines seemed to be get­ting loud­er and louder.

At the side of the road a twist­ing moun­tain stream tum­bled down the hill­side, dis­ap­pear­ing under the road and trick­ling into the lake. That was Harry’s two mile mark. If he pushed hard he knew that he could be home in around fif­teen min­utes now, but it would take every scrap of ener­gy he still had to do it. His legs were hurt­ing. Christ, that plane sound­ed low …

When the noise from the plane’s engine became deaf­en­ing and was so loud that he could feel it through the ground beneath his feet like an earth­quake, Har­ry stopped run­ning again. It didn’t sound like one of the mil­i­tary jets that often flew down the val­ley or even one of the small­er civil­ian air­craft that fre­quent­ly passed over. The air­craft was mov­ing in the same direc­tion as he was, com­ing from behind and fly­ing along the length of the lake towards the vil­lage. He could see it above the trees now, and he saw that it was far low­er than any plane he’d seen here before. At this point the slope of the bank down to the lake was rel­a­tive­ly gen­tle and he jogged down to the water’s edge to get a bet­ter view.

The plane passed over­head, drop­ping fast. It was no more than fifty metres from the sur­face of the lake and it was falling rapid­ly. As Har­ry watched, its nose and star­board wing drooped down as if it was sim­ply too tired to keep fly­ing. The inevitable seemed to take an eter­ni­ty to hap­pen. The rapid descent con­tin­ued until the tip of the plane’s wing clipped the water, then the air­craft som­er­sault­ed for­wards, flip­ping over and over and break­ing into sev­er­al huge pieces which land­ed in the lake with a series of mas­sive splash­es, vast plumes of water shoot­ing high into the air.

Har­ry didn’t con­nect the two crash­es he’d seen until he found a third. Ken­neth Hitch­cock, the local post­man, was dead in the mid­dle of the road next to his motor-scoot­er. Let­ters were blow­ing casu­al­ly like leaves on the breeze. Har­ry scooped sev­er­al of them up before real­is­ing there was prob­a­bly no point.

By the time he arrived back at the vil­lage, he knew that some­thing ter­ri­ble had happened.

By the time he made it home, the wreck of the plane had sunk beneath the sur­face of the lake and the water appeared decep­tive­ly calm.

By the time he arrived back at the vil­lage, every­one else was dead.

THE AUTUMN SERIES