I should quit smoking.
They were strange words to be thinking when he was running for his life down the river path, the pounding of his pursuer loud in his ears, but there they were. Random, pointless words that had absolutely no right being in his head. He should quit smoking. Because then, he wouldn’t feel as though there was a raging inferno burning in his lungs and he might – might – just be able to run that little bit faster.
He could hear a variety of sounds behind him, each individual one conjuring up a greater overall vision of abject terror. His imagination, healthy and very active, thank you very much, had already gone into overdrive. And yet he knew. He knew categorically that the reality would be far, far worse. He wasn’t going to turn around to verify it though, oh no. He wasn’t going to fall for that old chestnut. He’d seen enough horror films to at least have an inkling of what he was doing. Turning around to see what was chasing you never ended well.
The snarls that left his pursuer’s throat were wet in tone, made thick with drool and saliva. The sound of claws scrabbling against the dirt and stone of the rough river path most certainly belonged to massive paws. But probably the worst thing of all, the most horrendous contender for ‘noise of the night’ was the panting. It wasn’t the panting of a dog attempting to cool down. It was the panting of a creature hungering for his flesh, blood, bones and probably a few internal organs as appetisers.
The moon, full and bright, disappeared behind a cloud and the river path fell into complete blackness. The sounds of pursuit slowed, all six running feet reducing their speed momentarily. Without the light of the moon, both hunter and hunted were temporarily blinded. The difference, the running man knew, was that he wasn’t gifted with a supernatural sense of smell. It wasn’t going to be him who adjusted to the new levels of light in the space of a few heartbeats.
Adrenaline pushed past the screaming in his lungs and gave him a new burst of speed as he willed his legs to pump harder, to run faster, to carry him to safety.
I really should quit smoking.
Six Hours Earlier
‘Afternoon, Mister Flanagan.’
Ed looked up from his newspaper and grunted acknowledgement. He looked back down for a moment, then realisation kicked in. He raised his head again and there was something almost pleading in his eyes.
‘Dennis? It’s not that time of the month again already is it?’
‘You really would benefit from a calendar,’ said the customer in a light, scolding tone. ‘Or get yourself one of these new fangled electronic thingies. An Orange, or a Banana. Some sort of fruit, anyway.’
The irony of you saying that…Ed coughed suddenly, not entirely sure that he had not just said that out loud. But his customer didn’t appear to be deeply offended and carried on with his little lecture. “I’ve heard that those electronic doo-hickeys do just about everything short of making the tea for you.’ Ed folded his newspaper and took his feet off the counter.
He had seen four customers all day. Three of them had come in thinking he sold video games. He had briefly attempted to engage their interest in outdoor pursuits but that had resulted in the kind of looks that could slay nations. It had also invoked a slew of expletives that he had never known at that age. With the infinite patience of a man dealing with People Like That all the time, Ed pointed them up the stairs to the market. Then he returned to contemplation of the tabloid rubbish that so entertained him.
‘Well, this is nice,’ said Dennis, taking one of the fly fishing rods from the wall and bending it to test its suppleness. He was a mild, unassuming-looking man. The sort of man who, in books, would likely be described as the type who wouldn’t say ‘hello’ to a goose – never mind ‘boo’. Receding sandy hair formed a near-halo around a high forehead and his myopic green eyes blinked at the world through thick glass lenses. He was heavily set, the evidence of too much enjoyment of pie and peas at the weekly darts matches he played.
Ed knew Dennis very well. He was forty nine years old, married to an equally unassuming, yet remarkably angry woman called Barbara. He had two children. Ed didn’t know their names. Dennis had told him once, but he was so infernally dull that without really meaning to, whenever he spoke, Ed had sort of tuned him out. When Dennis spoke of his home life, Ed heard white noise.
Dennis flexed the rod a few more times, then put it back carefully on the rack. It teetered there precariously for a moment or two before promptly falling off. A second or two later, the others followed. They fell to the floor one at a time with a surprisingly loud noise until the carefully laid-out display was strewn across the dusty concrete of the shop floor. Dennis blinked down at the chaos he had wrought and took out a handkerchief. He removed his glasses and anxiously cleaned them. ‘Ah, sorry. Should I just…?’
‘Don’t worry about it, Dennis. I’ll sort it.’ Ed unfolded from his lounging position and moved across to recover the fallen items. He was tall; lean and rangy with whipcord muscles honed from the hours of training he put in. Dennis blinked up at him, then perched his glasses back on his nose. He hesitated a moment or two, then spoke.
‘I’ve got it, this time,’ he said, lowering his voice surreptitiously. ‘I know exactly what I need to catch the blighter.’
‘You said that last month, Dennis.’ Ed grinned in a friendly sort of way. He knew, deep down, that he really shouldn’t humour the man, but he couldn’t help it. Dennis was so set on making the catch of his life. ‘And the month before that. In fact, you’ve said this to me every month for the past two years.’
‘I mean it this time,’ insisted Dennis. He nodded sagely and peered up at the lanky Irishman. ‘But I’m going to need your help this time.’
He took out a brown envelope from inside his tweed jacket pocket and slapped it down on Ed’s counter. There was a faintly triumphant expression on his face which lost some of its impact when the envelope knocked over Ed’s mug of tea. In a few brief seconds, the fishing flies that Ed had been tying that afternoon were swimming forlornly in a brown, murky puddle as though trying to attract some kind of lesser-known tea trout.
‘Oh, I’m sorry… should I just…’ Dennis made a move as though he would clean it up, but Ed held his hand up to forestall him.
‘No,’ he said, wearily. ‘No, Dennis, it’s alright. I’ll sort it.’ He picked up the envelope, saving it from certain tannin doom and peered into it. He pulled out the contents and studied them thoughtfully.
‘Please tell me this isn’t the money you were putting aside for your second honeymoon, Dennis?’
‘Of course not!’ Dennis was almost comical in his indignant rage. ‘Do you think Barbara would…’
‘Dennis?’ Ed had a hard edge to his soft Irish brogue that was all business. ‘Is this the money you were putting aside for your second honeymoon or not?’
The little man seemed to sag visibly. ‘Yes,’ he said, sadly. ‘It’s that money.’
Ed shook his head and put the cash back into the envelope. There was a lingering sense of regret; he could have used the money, certainly. But he had limits and incurring the wrath of the terrifying spectre known as Barbara was way over the line. ‘I can’t take it. I’ve met your wife, Dennis, and of all the ravening monsters and terrors I could imagine, she’s by far and away the most unnerving. No.’ He put the money back in the bag. ‘Go on your second honeymoon, Dennis. Walk across the sand at sunset. Sip tropical punch beneath the shade of a parasol…’ Something faintly wistful came into his tone. Once, he had promised to take his wife to the Caribbean when he could afford to.
‘I don’t know that you can get tropical punch in South Shields, actually, Mr. Flanagan.’ He paused. ‘Although, there is that new curry place. Maybe…’
Ed sighed and held his hand up again, forestalling another tangential diatribe.
‘Tell you what, Dennis. How about we worry about the money later? And as for the tropical punch. Let’s not even go there. Tell me what your plan is, Dennis.’
Dennis told him.
In hindsight, Ed should never have asked. If he’d just said ‘no’, he wouldn’t, six hours later, have been running for his life along the banks of the River Wear.