He peered down towards his lap, studying the digital watch affixed to his wrist, below which a tangle of fingers rubbed and squeezed against each other, flaring a heat between clasped palms which belied the general freeze of the rest of his body.
The chill of a wintry English day had been succeeded by the chill of a wintery English night. The interior of his mid-to-late nineties Ford Transit, entirely defenceless against the cold if not for windows, had capitulated almost immediately. He’d spent the past half hour arbitrarily and fruitlessly punching buttons and flicking switches, like a child playing spaceship in mummy’s car, most of which were worn enough that their corresponding labels had all but faded. Their shifting elicited no apparent response, from the heater or anything else.
Ahead, a sudden string of speeding yellow lights shot past his windshield and, in a moment, were gone.
He retreated from the cold into what he would call a beard, but what most would designate bumfluff or, at best, a patchy, ginger garibaldi. His anxious, squeezing digits relinquished their death grip and allied to contest their mutual, frosty foe. Catching fistfuls of hair on their ascent, the hands approached his chin and the beard folded in on itself. He twisted the resulting wad up onto the lower half of his face, cupping his hands over his mouth and nose, trapping the insulating mass within. He could feel the warmth of his breath diffusing amongst the rust-red tangle, kindling a heat which was of some, limited comfort. He pushed the hair against his skin even more forcefully, strands prickled both nostrils and punctured the thin line where slightly chapped lips met.
His pale, white skin, tinged blood red by the cold, drained entirely of its colour in an instant. Ahead in the road, beyond the crossing barriers and lights, maybe 50-60 meters from the earthy pull-off in which the Transit found itself, he spotted a car, the first in at least an hour. The vehicle, he could just about gauge, was adorned with a set of blue-tinted hazard lights, its body marked by checkered yellow and blue squares.
The cold melted and his breath drew shallow, as though the icy air had been displaced by a sudden flood of terrible liquid. It couldn’t be a tip off, could it? Nobody knew. Unless, of course, someone had ratted.
As the cruiser drew closer, near enough that he could discern two high-vis-clad officers in the front seats, he darted around the dashboard desperately with both hands until the tips of his digits brushed against the glass surface of his phone. He fixed his eyes to its screen, in an effort to appear innocuous enough as not to draw any unwanted attention. Beneath the dashboard, though, a hand readily clasped at keys protruding from the ignition and his feet sat primed on the pedals below.
The glow of headlights intensified in his peripheral as the patrol car drew nearer, but his gaze persisted, fixed at the small screen in front, which arbitrarily flicked between pages and pages of applications.
The quiet grumbling of an engine accompanied the light and intruded on the serenity of the scene. It purred softly and, like an advancing hunter, its stealth was betrayed by the crunch of its contact with the dirt below.
He felt its presence with a deep burning in the pit of his stomach, but didn’t dare peer for a moment from the blue screen which, to his mind, was all that kept him from sweating suspicion.
Both the car and time itself broke down as the former finally came parallel to the Transit. His one hand, rattling with apprehension, rocked the key back and forth within the ignition, clattering the three chains that dangled below.
In a moment, it was over. The mechanical rumbling and crunching of four tyres against tarmac and loose stones faded into silence, and so the three keychains ceased their rattling. It must’ve been two minutes before, finally daring to dart his black eyes to the side view mirror, the depth of his breath returned and, with a sigh, he slung his phone atop the dashboard and slumped in his seat. The stinging cold resurfaced.
He sat in blissful relief for a while, twisted in his chair, contorted like an addict with the gormless glare of absence to prove it. It took the buzzing of his phone against the dashboard’s cheap plastic to rouse him. He took it in his hands and a succession of vibrations followed, conveying a string of messages. Only short segments were visible from the home screen, the first lines of some four messages, each emanating from a different source, unaccompanied by name or any other designation bar a succession of numbers. ‘I’m in position brother’, the first read. A ‘dis is it’, preceded a simple ‘Ready.’. The notification pushed to the bottom, a more-probing ‘are u ready?’, was the sole to which he bothered responding, with a simple thumbs up emoji.
The digital watch erupted in a tinny bleeping accompanied almost synchronously with the sounding of his phone, which was ferociously belting the ring of an old-timey, bell alarm clock. A strict composure washed over him and, unperturbed by the uproar, he caught sight of a sole spot of light on the horizon. Ahead, the pair of barriers swiftly fell, as they had multiple times that night, bisecting the road in two.
The light fragmented as it approached, dividing like the destruction of a celestial body obliterated by the violence of descent. One block glow broke into a string of speeding, linear lights, skirting sharply across the horizon, unbroken by the meandering and uneven lay of the land.
His keychains jingled inaudibly against the two piercing alarms and the Transit’s old engine chugged to weak and fragile life. With one hand placed almost casually at the twelve o’clock position atop the steering wheel, his other was free to scoop up the bleeping phone. A composed thumb prodded-in the four digit passcode and pushed down upon a particular, nondescript icon. A banner notification twisted down from the top of the screen. Marked with an explanation point contained within a yellow triangle, the accompanying text sought to warn him of a major incident that had just taken place near by.
The Transit crunched out of the lay-by and climbed onto to the road. The lights which were just a moment ago at quite some distance began to glow the tarmac ahead, where the set of barriers had fallen and cleaved the road.
A haunting, two-tone horn emanated from the string of lights as they shot towards the bisected road. His foot forced the Transit’s accelerator firmly to the ground and its engine let out a tremendous groan, like that of a shot and wounded elephant. The din of alarms, the cold of the interior and the ginger of his beard lurched forward towards the barrier. The thumb of his one hand, still affixed to the phone, hovered readily above its screen.
A sudden string of speeding yellow lights shot past his windshield and rushed across the road behind the divider. The bolting Transit rammed the bisecting barrier, which bent and moaned against its weight. It crept forward, inch by inch, as the van’s tyres span, screeched and smoked ferociously. Yellow lights continued to glare in succession against the windshield. A smoke began to emanate from the van’s bonnet, which he didn’t fail to notice. The mechanical groan and terrible screeching began to wane and the vehicle’s advance ceased. His thumb finally and firmly came down on the detonator and all gave way to an abominable light.