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The Runner

Password protection

By Simon CurtisPublished about a year ago 19 min read
The Runner
Photo by Jack Plant on Unsplash

Gradwell Web Design had been in Sheffield for nearly three years when Fiona Davis landed her first job as a designer. It was her first job since leaving university and she was desperate to impress. For someone as talented as Fiona it wasn’t hard to demonstrate it through her creativity but she also wanted to do it through her productivity. Whenever a deadline loomed she made sure it was met regardless of how unrealistic it was. This meant she utilised the very modern set up of the Gradwell offices and could be found leaving or arriving at times most other people would be fast asleep.

It was in her sixth month at the firm that she arrived at the offices to put the finishing touches to a website launch at 4am. She knew that old Len, the elderly night security guard would be either sat at the front desk and could let her in or he would be doing a patrol and she would have to battle with the particularly unreliable electronic door console. Ordinarily it was a simple, swipe the key card and enter the password however every so often it would throw up ‘PASSWORD NOT RECOGNISED’ or ‘RESET YOUR PASSWORD’. Today was one of those days, the front desk was vacant and the console was just not playing ball. She just had to wait for Len to finish his last round.

Fiona’s body was discovered in the canal behind Gradwell Web Design two days later. The hunt for her killer went cold very quickly but her tragedy hung in the air for months later. The indiscriminate nature of the murder had everyone looking over their shoulder. Even Len was nervous to the point his son would walk him home every morning. It was this environment that Jenny Gordon walked into the following summer when she took up her position at Gradwells. She was an outstanding programmer and had been incredibly successful in her previous job in London but the huge city never suited her and when an opportunity in her home town arose it was impossible to resist.

Jenny was in her mid twenties and had two interests, her work and hill running. She did this every weekend and spent small fortunes staying in hotels the length and breadth of the country just to try a route she had seen on Instagram. In between work and the hills were regular trips to the gym which she squeezed into her long working days.

She hadn’t been long on the job when she realised a huge part of her day was wasted on crowded buses and trains, and then trips to the gym were slow and ponderous because of the equipment was being regularly used by harassed and angry people. She made the decision that if she were to fully use her time and enjoy your life she might be better changing the hours that she kept. The city’s night buses were regular and very rarely full. What was also a big draw about them, they were always and without fail on time. Her gym was empty in the afternoon and only filled up from 5 o’clock onwards and so very soon. She decided that if she rose at 3:45 in the morning and was ready to get on the bus at the end of the Street by 4:15 am. She could be at her office by 4:30 am and be finished her working day by day, this would give her the opportunity to get to the gym long before it’s filled and also give her much more daylight during the winter hours.

Jenny became a very good friend of Len the security guard as that time of the morning, they were the only two in the building. He often ensured that there was a cup of coffee ready for her on her arrival, and they would spend a pleasant five or ten minutes, keeping each other up-to-date with family news and the goings on in the building. They even shared a desire to travel to America. Since losing his wife Len had been saving for the price of a ticket so he could make the trip when he retired, on the low wages he was on this had taken some time but he said he was nearly there, Jenny too had dreamed of seeing New York but had never had the chance.

Having not had any grandparents of her own, as they had all passed before she was born, the septuagenarian security guard became something of a surrogate, and that first Christmas they exchanged gifts. He, for his part had often joked that he saw her like an extra member of his family, and was disappointed that she was too young for his son and too old for his grandchildren, so she could not marry into his family. Quietly Jennie was quite pleased as she had met Len’s son who occasionally turned up early to walk his father home after the murder, and whilst generally pleasant was a balding and slightly overweight supermarket delivery driver.

Jenny’s life was perfectly comfortable and suited her well. By January, when she returned after Christmas, she was preparing to complete a training course, the results of which would undoubtedly mean she would be promoted and was working particularly hard towards this in her spare time. She had been back in the regular patterns for a couple of days when she first noticed that things on her desk were going missing. Initially, it was a pack of sticky notes, which she assumed a colleague had picked up to make a note, and then forgotten to replace she simply grabbed a new packet from the station cupboard. Next it was her pens that began to disappear from her desk again, whilst particularly annoying it was put down to inconsiderate colleagues. However, when an important textbook disappeared, her frustrations began to build. Numerous emails, sent around her colleagues failed to recover the book, and at the point she was preparing to purchase a new copy she arrived in the morning to find Len holding her book, like he have discovered some form of hidden treasure. He had found it in the storeroom at the bottom of a pile of old newspapers. He assumed that it had been accidentally knocked into her waste paper bin, and when the cleaners had collected it, they spotted the book, did not know where it was from and chose to keep it just in case Jenny was absolutely delighted as the book self while not particularly precious to her, was very expensive to replace.

The following evening, she was flicking through her textbook, trying to complete some last-minute revision before her impending assessment when she noticed that one of the pages had a sticky note stuck in it. She was surprised to see it there as it’s not something that she ordinarily did. What was more surprising was that written on the sticky note, was the word ‘password’. This puzzled her as it was not in her handwriting and had clearly been deliberately placed on that page. It did not stop her from revising for too long and continued to read through the book. Soon though she stopped again as spotted that there was another sticky note on another page and again this one also have the word password written on it. In all there were ten notes, she found in the pages of her

textbook. All written in the same hand all saying password.

She was slightly puzzled by this, but again, put this down to having fallen in the bin on the notes, finding their way into the pages, and therefore put it aside threw the notes away and didn’t think about this again.

As the exam drew closer, Jenny spent more and more time working and therefore she became more and more tired. Her sleeping patterns were disrupted, though she did try very hard to continue with her early mornings. It was her regularity at the gym that suffered but she promised herself that she would get back in her good habits as soon as she had completed the exam. Her out of the ordinary sleeping has also had an impact on the quality of sleep she was getting. Being busy so close to bedtime meant that she did not have time to wind down and so her brain was racing as she got her head onto her pillow. This disruption to her sleep found her dreaming, which was something she didn’t remember having done regularly. Jenny’s dreams were unusual and very hard for her to articulate to anyone if they had been interested anyway. They were more feelings at times than images, feelings of dread, cold, and a lack of control. She attributed this to the anxieties she was feeling regarding the upcoming test.

However there was one very different dream which left her feeling very uncomfortable and particularly terrified. The thing was she didn’t remember it. She just knew she was scared, and when she woke up. They were tears streaming down her face.

The exam came and went, and Jenny knew that she just had to wait for the results. The dreams kept coming but had gradually slowed and she was confident that as her body returned to its normal patterns would come to an end completely. She went back to her routine of early mornings, and afternoons in the gym. The night bus became a pleasant adventure once again as she was not fighting sleep to remember to get off at the right stop. One morning, not long after the exam she had decided for a change to sit on the top deck and was happily enjoying the peace of being on her own when she noticed an odd advert on one of the panels above the window. In the other panels were adverts for things like vitamins books and claims lawyers. However, this one didn’t seem to be advertising anything all it said, was ‘password’ in red writing on a white background. It didn’t seem to make any real sense and she couldn’t quite work out what the campaign it was trying to support was, assuming that it was something to do with identity theft. She shrugged and continued looking out of the window at the street from this novel angle.

When she arrived at work that morning, Len was there as ever with a hot cup of coffee and a smile. He offered positive words about how well she’s clearly done in the exam despite having not got the results yet and she thoroughly appreciated his support. She told him about the unusual advert, and he similarly had no idea what it might have been for. He recalled a similar mobile phone advertising campaign many years ago and wondered if it was something similar. Jenny concurred with her elderly friend before heading up to her office to get on with her day.

Another week went by and lifted for Jenny had pretty much returned to its normal pattern. She pretended she wasn’t concerned about the exam results, but made a habit of checking her email at 9 am every day just in case. It was on one of these ordinary days whilst she was reading through a set of minutes from a meeting she had judiciously avoided when a moment of recollection hit her. The dream that she couldn’t remember suddenly became clear in her mind. There was a girl, and she was pale and sad, and all she could see was her face against the dark background. The darkness just highlighted how colourless she was, and how dark the rings around her eyes were. The darkness was only offset by the redness of her terribly sad eyes.

What made the image more striking was that she was saying something, but could not be heard and was getting more and more frustrated by the fact that her words were not being heard. Jenny tried to work it out and all that she could see was that it wasn’t words. It was a word. But Jenny could not make out what it was.

She sat at her desk for a while, trying very hard to get the image out of her mind, but she found it very difficult. As now it had returned it seem determined not to leave. Every time she allowed herself to stop thinking about work the face reappeared in her mind and all she could think about was “what is she saying to me?” But try as she might Jenny could not make it out.

For the rest of the day she went through the motions but her mind was not her own. She couldn’t focus or concentrate and it was pretty pointless her being at her desk but it was Friday and she only had an hour until the time she usually left. This weekend was going to be her first running trip of the year and the opportunity to completely clear her mind. She went through the motions for the last hour including an unnecessary trip for a cup of tea and a very prolonged packing of her work bag and then was off home to grab her car and head off to the Peak District.

The Bed and Breakfast Jenny woke up in was quaint and old fashioned, the landlady had seemed a little disappointed that there were no requirements for a cooked breakfast on a Saturday morning but she ensured there was plenty of coffee and a steaming bowl of porridge waiting for her guest when she came down. She couldn’t help herself and had left a variety of jams, honey and syrups on the table for Jenny. She passed some pleasantries and gave a warning about the weather before retreating to the kitchen and busying herself with a ‘real breakfast’.

Jenny ate and returned to her room for some final preparations before heading to the start of what was to be a very cold but picturesque run. The room in the B and B was at the top of two flights of stairs and she used the steps to warm up her ankles. Each step was slow and deliberate and she watched her feet as they rotated and pressed. As she opened the door she was still concentrating on the movement of her feet and was looking at the ground as she stepped over the threshold, had she not been doing this she might probably not have noticed the sticky note on the floor of the room. She bent down and picked it up, it said ‘password’ on it. Deciding it must have fallen from the textbook and got stuck to her trainers she crumpled it into a ball and threw it into the waste paper bin.

The run was hard and as had been predicted by the landlady the weather had defied the forecasts and a storm began to cut in. She had just arrived at the top of the hill when the snow began to fall. She was exactly halfway through her route and whatever way she looked at it the only option was to keep going in order to get down. She had run in bad conditions before but this was different, after another ten minutes the visibility was beginning to fall below a few metres. The ground beneath her feet was becoming treacherous and she started to feel disoriented. She wasn’t sure which way the track went but couldn’t stop otherwise the now bitter cold might make it hard for her to complete her run. She concentrated on her feet only taking small glances into the snowstorm blowing into her face.

Just as she felt she must have lost the track she caught sight of a figure ahead of her heading away. She locked her eyes on it and battled the wind, cold and the increasing pain in her fingers and toes to keep heading forward. Gradually the pair made their way down the track and as they neared the safety of the road back into the village Jenny felt she was gaining and hoped to be able to thank her fellow runner for helping guide her down the path. As she got closer she could make out the figure more clearly. It was definitely a woman but though she was keeping herself ahead of Jenny she didn’t appear to be running and was easing her way across the terrain far more comfortably than she was herself.

By the time Jenny reached the road the other woman could only have been fifty metres in front of her, the snow had slowed and as the track bent around she was just out of Jenny’s eyeline for a moment but when she reached the road the woman was nowhere to be seen. She looked both directions up and down, there were no side paths, just hedgerows on either side of the road as far as the eye could see. Jenny hesitated for a moment before setting off back down the road towards the village.

That evening Jenny ate well at the local pub and soon forgot about the mysterious runner. She slept well and made the landlady very happy by enjoying a full breakfast before heading home to prepare for another week at work. As she drove out of the village she felt, just for a minute, that she saw the runner again, turning from the Main Street and down towards the river. She stopped the car suddenly and stared hard but saw nothing, momentarily she thought about jumping out and running down the street but the car horn behind her jolted her back to the road and the route home where she unpacked and prepared for the start of the next week of work.

The alarm on Jenny’s phone was an obnoxious sound. Even though she was used to the early start she hated getting up and had chosen a particularly awful, loud and tuneless sound. She dragged back the covers and lifted herself upright. From the moment her feet landed on the bedroom floor she clicked into autopilot and began the process of getting out of the door in time for the bus. It was a well tested process and she had prepared thoroughly for it the night before. By the time she had taken her lunch out of the fridge and transferred it along with her water bottle into her bag she had enough time to quickly check her phone before putting on her shoes. To her annoyance the phone was off and so she bypassed this step to put on her shoes. But they were not there. They should have been but they weren’t. Jenny was certain she had put them by the door the night before and they weren’t in the shoe rack so she really had no idea where to look. Giving a glance at the clock she realised she was running short on time and so grabbed her smartest pair of trainers and headed out of the door.

The bus was empty when she got on it, she was pleased there was absolutely no delay as it was freezing cold, she had been grateful that she had her trainers on as she was certain that had she been wearing her normal work shoes the icy patches would have seen her fall at least twice. With the bus empty Jenny decided she would travel on the top deck. She sat on the quiet bus and was half observing the dark morning outside when she was certain she heard her name. She swivelled around but there was nobody else there on the top deck with her. She shrugged it off and went back to her absent gazing through the slightly frosted windows.

At her stop she carefully stepped down onto the white pavement and began the short walk to her office. It was crisp and cold and she could see her breath in front of her. Once or twice she felt her feet move slightly as she took a step and so she focussed more on her feet. She was so distracted that she was somewhat surprised by front door of her building when she arrived.

The door was glass as were the panels either side. She glanced in to see if Len was about, but he was obviously on his rounds. She pulled her entry card from her lanyard and swiped it through the console. Her name appeared on the screen along with a beep and a request for her to enter her password. She typed it into the little keypad and watched as the console thought for a moment before it beeped and demanded that she try again. This time Jenny removed her glove and repeated the password assuming that she had mistyped on the small keyboard because of her gloves.

The same result.

Frustrated she took a step to the side to see through the large glass panel in the hope that Len was just out of sight. What she saw made her step back in shock. A woman was standing right up to the glass staring directly at her. She immediately recognised her as the woman from her dream. She was pale, disheveled and sad. She looked directly at Jenny and spoke but she couldn’t make her words out. As she focused on her mouth to try and make the words out she noticed that the figure was not solid, she could see through her. In that moment three things happened, first she came to the conclusion that it may have been a reflection, second she noticed the women’s eyes lift from her to somewhere over her shoulder and third she realised the word being mouthed was RUN.

Jenny followed the woman’s eyes and turned her head to see a man looming behind her holding a lump of wood high above her head. She dropped her bag, swivelled on the spot and darted away from the incoming weapon and sprinted down the dark street. Too frightened to look back she ran in the direction she hoped would bring her to other people, as she did she felt her feet slide as she hit the ice. Her heart began pounding as the adrenaline surged through her body. The buildings around her began to blur and she couldn’t think where to go, but just as she began to feel a wave of panic swell in her she spotted someone ahead of her. It was a woman, and she was running. She recognised her immediately and focused on her as she fled.

Jenny was no longer thinking, she was acting and reacting. The figure in front of her kept moving. She momentarily looked back over her shoulder, the man was still in pursuit. She looked back and saw the woman turn the corner and head down a different path.

When Jenny reached the path, she saw it was darker than where she had been and seemed to head down towards the canal. She didn’t have time to think. She decided that as up to this point the woman had helped her she should continue to trust her now.

The canal path was more treacherous to run-on than the footpath she had been on, and as she took a second glance behind her she nearly fell. Through her tear filled eyes she saw that the man while not gaining on her had not stopped running. She looked again at the runner in front of her and focused on her back. She knew she’d slowed, but knew that falling would lead to her pursuer catching her and reasoned that he must have slowed too otherwise he would fall. Jenny was tiring as she spotted a bridge over the canal. The runner disappeared underneath it and Jenny felt alone for a moment. She picked up her pace a little to get her back in to view as she reached the bridge. She noticed that instead of the dirt track of the towpath, there was a wooden decked floor and as soon as she put a foot on it she could tell it was covered in ice. Carefully, she manoeuvred her way across it and found herself at the other side of the bridge. Immediately she looked up to see if she could see the runner, but she was gone. Jenny kept running, hoping to put more distance between herself and the man.

When she felt she was far enough ahead, Jenny looked back again. So the runner had stopped and was between her and her pursuer. Despite her fear, Jenny, stopped and watched as the man gained on the bridge he did not slow in fact, he paid no attention to the ice on the bridge, and he ran toward a woman as if not to see her. Then, at the point, it appeared he would crash into her. He seem to finally see that she was there. He took a step to the side to avoid her, and with which his foot hit a large patch of ice, he slipped, and with sickening crunch, hit his head on the wooden decking, before with a splash landing in the canal.

The woman disappeared. At this and almost instantaneously. Two cyclists appeared behind Jenny, she flagged them down and told them all that happened. They called the police straight away and as they did walked back up the path to see if they could spot the man but in the dark there was no sign. The three waited for the police to arrive and soon Jenny was back in her home, sitting with a cup of tea, and a specially trained police officer talking her through the events that morning.

When Jenny completed her story, the police officer looked at her, reached his hand into his pocket and pulled out his phone. He looked at it for a moment, and typed a few words into the Internet search engine. A picture popped up and held it towards Jenny. She immediately recognised the woman being shown to her, it was her protector. The policeman did not quite know how to explain that this woman was Fiona Davies, the unfortunate victim from one year ago but he tried and decided it was not something they needed to include it in the report.

Three weeks later, the body of the attacker had been recovered and most people had put the events to the back of their minds, Jenny was sat at a computer in the office. She clicked open her email to find the message that she had passed her exam. It had been a relatively short amount of time and she was surprised at how well she had coped. She was even more surprised when she found the man who had pursued her was not only the killer of the unfortunate Fiona, but was also Len’s son. Len had no idea and was utterly heartbroken, he had left the day he found out and nobody had heard from him since. However on the day Jenny left for her new role at the company’s head office back in London she found an envelope on her desk with no name and on it but inside was a card with a picture of Mam Tor on the front and a ticket for a flight to America inside.

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    Simon CurtisWritten by Simon Curtis

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