In the early hours of the morning, or the late hours of the night (depending on how you look at time), the towpath was quiet, still and very dark. No light from the surrounding houses, roads and ill-fated gastropubs filtered through the dense cover of willow. It was a perfect place for a quiet run, or for an accident, a murder.
The man’s name was Jones, and he was running. Not from or to anyone or anything, he was simply running. His subscription to the gym had been cancelled two weeks earlier; an extravagance he could no longer rationalise, a once-shared space he gave custody of to his ex. So he had taken his fitness into his own hands. Press-ups and sit-ups in the living room; lunges, stretches, jogging on the spot. It was working, to a point, but he wanted more.
So he decided to go running. Not jogging, not the pedestrian, sweaty bounce along the pavement, a salmon against the silted tide of commuters and shoppers who thronged the streets around his house. No, he was running. And, since it needed a certain freedom to reach top speed, he more precisely decided to go running at night. He had no fear of the dark, and he knew the area around him backwards. The hardest part, he knew, would be the towpath. Its sometimes-slippery path wound too close to the bounded river at times, and the darkness was surprisingly absolute for an area comfortably within Zone Three. He was confident, however, that he could navigate it without mishap, and so it had proved.
This was his fifth night run. At no point during any of his previous runs had he felt nervous or afraid; it simply did not occur to him to feel that way about his area. His hood. His – as he ran, he rolled his head in an almost unconscious mockery of the bravado of a culture he did not understand – manor. There could be criminals hiding in every bush for all he knew, but he shrugged the idea of their threat off without blinking. Yes, the possibility occurred to him. No, it did not seem credible. Of course, there could be ghosts, demons, ghouls behind every tree but a rational man did not believe in such things. Jones was not a rational man, per se, but a deeply unimaginative one. Boggarts in the undergrowth were the last thing on his mind.
He was running.
As he ran, he listened to music. Usually dance music, built for rhythmic action, creating ebbs, flows, rushes in his speed as he raced his own arc-lit shadow through suburbia. Sometimes he allowed classical tracks to buoy him along – nothing shy and retiring. The Ride of the Valkyries, Mephisto Waltz, Dies Irae, because there is nothing like the wrath of god to move your limbs, muscles tearing themselves to shreds and reforming stronger at each pace; faster and faster when you should be slowing down. Again, though, he did not fear God. He did not believe in God, because he did not have the imagination to invest in such things. He heard only the music, the driving force, the exultation in being.
So it was, as Jones ran along the bank of the still river, that he became aware that he was being tracked. A shape slunk through the lighter darkness between the trees of the opposite bank. A ripple spread across the water as a rodent slipped silently in. There was something, some animal, low and hunched, keeping pace with him. Keeping pace.
No, that was giving the dog – it must be a dog – too much credit. It was trotting along the path and happened to be matching his speed. And even if it was keeping up with him deliberately, well, isn’t that what dogs do? Run alongside their masters, waiting for the next thrown stick, the next game of Frisbee? Jones straightened his back, imagining himself the master of the shaggy dog who had taken to him, if just for now. He wondered if he was a dog person. Perhaps. Cats always struck him as a bit stupid and stubborn, unwilling to meet humans on an interactive level, unable to learn even basic commands and thoroughly selfish. Dogs, though. Dogs were pack animals, just like people. He could train a dog, have it bring him his slippers (should he ever decide to wear slippers), play elaborate, teasing, games of catch and fetch on the broad marshes not far from the towpath, steam relaxingly by the fire at the end of the day.
So caught up in this night-time day-dream was Jones that when he paused for breath he was disappointed to see that his companion had disappeared. Run on ahead, perhaps, or turned back. Maybe even climbed the bank to one of the gardens backing onto the path; not mindful of the mud, the nettles and the stern territoriality of suburban garden keepers, a dog is free to come and go as it pleases. He passed under a long, low bridge, its undersides plastered with the frayed remains of posters for missing cats, then out into an open stretch of path. Nothing to the right of him but well-maintained marshland, fringed by the slow light of suburbia, nothing to the left, nothing at all.
He ran on.
The next night it was cold. The moon was fuller, but not yet full. The correct term is gibbous, but there is nothing of the luminous beauty of the moon in it. Jones glanced at the sky and the word gibbous fell flatly and immediately into the unending monologue of his own thoughts. He was alone with them this night, his iPhone sulking on its charger. The moon was swept away as he concentrated on the path ahead.
The only sounds were his own. Breath, still measured and full at this stage of the run, his heart’s beat in his ears, the rhythmic slap of his trainers on the frosted-glitter tarmac. He was warm, in his bubble of exertion, but he could feel that the freezing night was ready to rush in when he took a break. He resolved not to take a break, to put this stretch of run behind him quickly and find a place to fall in the warmth. To end a run in a pub would be terrible hypocrisy. He decided that was what he would do.
He was squaring this particular circle when he noticed the footsteps. As fast as his, matching his speed, every footfall an echo of his own. Maybe it was an echo. He stopped, just for a second, just to confirm. The sound stopped immediately. He never ran without his headphones, he did not know the quirks of his route. The acoustics must be unusual here.
He ran on, and the footsteps came after him again. His mind was playing tricks on him, it must have been, because it would not let the echo be an echo. His atrophied imagination was slinking along the opposite bank, suggesting an unseen running partner. He stopped again, and this time the echo died to slowly. There was something else to it, too. Something hard, skittering, clattering quietly amongst the sounds. Not hidden, but not advertising itself.
He ran on, and there was a movement on the opposite bank. A patch of tall weeds fluttered as the footsteps resumed. Grass grown and overgrown was moving, a suggestion of a shape on the opposite bank, just slightly behind him. The water nearest the shape rippled softly as it passed, as if tiny creatures were displaced, charging quietly into the cold river to clear a path. The movement continued and he could see the low, hunched shape from last night, padding quickly along, claws catching the path as it kept pace with him. Followed. Tracked. As it pursued him. A break in the unkempt grass and he saw its outline clearly in the chalk light of the moon.
Now his heart bellowed in his ears, now his breath drew painfully from his throat. His feet flopped heavily on the path as he ran, no longer the measured stride of the experienced runner but the frantic pounding of the prey animal. He was not a dog person, he decided, his brain fixating elsewhere. Not his idea of fun. Not a dog like that, anyway. The sweat-soaked hair at the nape of his neck still found the strength to rise at the thought of the animal across the river. At least, he reminded himself, he was separated by a river.
As he passed under the bridge papered with missing cat posters he strained to hear above the pulsing of his own feet and the wet hammering of his blood, trying to make out the other footsteps, the clicking of the claws on concrete. He could hear nothing. Glancing across the river, he could see nothing, and then he had to stop.
Stooped shoulders framed a body possibly covered in thick hair. Or it could be a coat – it was probably a coat. The air around him smelled densely of the rotten floor of the forest. The man’s breath was heavy with the animal stink of meat and it came stiff and laboured, rasping like bones cracked and dragging inside flesh. He was enormous, filling the path from side to side.
‘Excuse me,’ said Jones, scarcely above his labouring breath. The man did not move. Instead, he smiled. It was a horrible smile, filled with hunger, and teeth yellow and porous as ancient bone. Jones thought of firelight and the sound of wolves, he thought of passing through woods in the night and he thought of cats. So many cats, missing from their homes and the families they left looking for them.
People miss cats. Would anyone miss him?
He turned and ran. Each time his foot came down it was agony, as sharp and vivid as running on broken legs. Sweat was freezing his skin and, as it evaporated in wisps and billows, his own ghost trailed behind him. He kept his eyes focused on the path ahead, knowing his pursuer was steady behind him, hearing the echo of his own feet. Spots jumped and danced in his vision, blood cells criss-crossing his pupils, he could barely see the river, couldn’t see the moonlight, couldn’t see the orange glow of the streets around him. His own senses pushed in at him, absorbing him, isolating him. All he could hear was his heart. All he could see was his own blood, all he could taste was the flat metal of adrenaline, all he could feel was pain, all he could smell was breath of the man under the bridge, and the forest floor.
They pulled him from the river the next morning. His saturated clothes nearly dragged him under, never to be found, but someone spotted him from a house overlooking the towpath. No-one in the area had seen him before and he had no identification on him. His face was unknown and his body was torn. The police printed up a poster appealing for witnesses. They did not have a photo to use, but described his clothing, his hair colour. It was put up around the area and eventually it was covered with a club flyer or a fresh appeal in some other matter. In time, someone even pasted a missing cat poster over the copy under the bridge.