Malware by Kuronoshio

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The clacking soles of patent leather shoes echoed down the cobbled lane. Grey stone shops and fliers for obscure bands passed by in a blur as he scrambled through the tangled nest of bicycles and made the turn to the final hill.

The pink haired girl hadn't lost a step. She was still right on his heels. For a moment, he was sure he'd lost her at the bakery. Now she was breathing down his neck, her sneakers eerily quiet as she pursued him. His chest tightened, ribs pulled tight as he gulped frozen air into burning lungs. The morning air was so cold the sweat gushing out of his temples turned to rime on his forehead. In the final seconds, his legs threatened to give out, but he wouldn't let them fail him. From here on, it was all about mental strength.

The crowd thickened in front of the station, a knotty mass of bodies that hooked his satchel and cut in front of him without warning, the mindless swarm oblivious to his urgency. Under the navy suit and the starched shirt, he felt a river of sweat build momentum as it ran down his spine. The joints of his knees stung from the shock of the concrete. He elbowed forward between two anoraks, glancing over his shoulder.

No sign of her.

One of the anoraks yelled angrily. Performing a half turn in the air, he shouted an apology, though he didn't stop, volplaning down a flight of stairs and through the ticket gates. Heaving for air, he glanced around him. He was safely on the platform. Still no sign of the girl. Not that it mattered anymore. The train would arrive in - he checked the display - six minutes. He could have easily walked the last street and still have squeezed through the door before the whistle shrilled.

From his bag, he took out a handkerchief and mopped the sweat from his forehead. In the warmth of the bodies pressed around him, he felt the slippery film of sweat between his body and his clothes. Audibly, his pulse pounded in his ears, the only other sound the tinny echo of some teenager's earphones. The world was tinged green by the adrenalin rushing to his brain, the colour casting a sickly pall over the passengers.

Still got it. James Richards smiled as he pulled out the Sudoku puzzle from his satchel.

Of course, the whole thing was ridiculous; stupid male pride. She had started running first. That was when he realised he must be late. The two of them caught the same train every morning, not that they'd ever spoken. There were a lot of girls in their twenties, all with the same plastic pass-cards around their necks or dangling from bags. He'd long ago theorized there must be a call-centre at the end of the road. As soon as she broke into a jog, he'd felt like he'd better run, too. He'd taken off at a sprint, passing her in the first fifty meters, only to realise the terrible problem he now faced. If he stopped, she'd think he was out of shape, that he'd been showing off when he overtook her. He'd started a weird competition. The further he ran, and the more persistently she kept pace behind him, the more certain he became she knew what he was thinking.

He let out a short chuckle at his own stupidity and the yawning chasm of awkwardness he was going to suffer every morning after this.

The train thundered in the distance, the screech of steel on steel echoing from the dark. He edged into position, weaving his way through the aroma of coffee and sweet pastries, years of practice telling him exactly where on the platform the doors of his preferred carriage would stop. Over the heads of the crowd he saw the pink hair and the black knitted cardigan. She'd made it. Well, good for her. For a moment, their gazes met. Her face lit up, smizing at him with impish eyes.

He turned away flustered. His wedding band seemed to grow heavy on his finger. He shook his head, but still couldn't resist looking back. That was when he witnessed it for the first time.

A middle-aged business woman in a smart gabardine coat and silk cravat was shuffling through the crowd, earphones in, her gaze locked on the screen of her smartphone. Her face was slack and expressionless as she walked towards the edge of the platform.

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