He desperately sucked in air in wallowing gasps, trudging down the dark alleyway in a blind run, his ragged sneakers glistening, every fiber of them soaked from the murky puddles he had repeatedly stomped through, splashing dirty water on his even dirtier trousers and threadbare overcoat. It hurt to breathe, and already he knew that he had broken a rib. His right wrist was swelling up pretty bad too, red with inflammation.
And they hadn't even touched him yet.
A howling screech came from the impenetrable dark recesses of the alley, the scraping of hard-heeled shoes on concrete as they followed him. He knew that turning his head around to look would only waste precious seconds, endangering him to bump into something else, tumbling him to the ground a second time, possibly snapping something else loose or injuring himself again. He just ran, kept on running, to the light at the end...a streetlight on the adjacent street. He was going to make it. He had to make it.
Sweat poured out of his body, his mop of greasy hair dangling in front of his eyes like wavy tendrils, his scruff of beard shadowing the grim concern of his mouth. His energy was ebbing, too many years of harsh living, too many years of being destitute, braving one unforgiving winter after another, fighting the creatures that dwelled in the dark corners for a morsel of food, too many years of sustaining and weakening alcohol.
Too many years of being on the run.
He wheezed, getting closer to the mouth of the alley. A brush on his shoulder. Was it only his imagination? Hot breath on the back of his dirt-streaked neck, whispering two words, over and over and over again. "It's time," they said, in a voice too shrill, too devilish to be considered human. Still, he didn't look back. The light was right there, growing brighter, the sanctity of a public street, to live...to live one more harrowing year.
He splashed through another puddle, hoping it would slow them down, knowing it wouldn't. But it was going to be all right; he was going to make it. He reached out for the light, feeling its effervescent warmth on his fingertips. The dark silhouette of another person came into his myopic view, bordered by the two crumbling brick walls of the alley, the littered concrete walkway, and the night sky above.
"Help!!! Help me!!" he shrieked.
The silhouette strolled in his direction, the face hidden by a curtain of shadow from the wide brim of a fedora. He kept running toward this man, his lifeline, his savior, his...
He stopped, skidding to a halt, falling down hard on his ass. His breath was gone; he didn't even have enough left to scream.
It was one of them.
"What we got here, Officer?" the lieutenant asked, coming to a stop near the young patrolmen, hunched over the remains of the old man.
The young man's face was actually green, a line of spittle coming from one corner of his frowning mouth, the unmistakable smell of vomit somewhere nearby. "I don't know," he spoke weakly, "the damndest thing I ever saw. It looks like...like...he was just torn apart."
The lieutenant nodded, taking in the scene for himself. He didn't blame the officer for getting sick. In a shade under thirty years on the force, coming up on blessed retirement, he had seen all kinds of things that sent shivers down his spine, invading his dreams with ferocious, recurring nightmares. A man having too much fun with his family, a chainsaw the only entertainment. The burned husk of a poor soul glued to a high voltage line. Every pint of a woman's blood used to spell out a message she had considered reverent enough to plaster over the walls of her project house, exchanging her life in the process.
This one, however, beat them all. The mother of all nightmares.
Christ, why couldn't he have retired sooner?
There was nothing much left to the body, the skin hanging in ragged clumps from yellowed bone, the head cracked open like an egg, blood and brain matter spilling out onto the stained concrete. The shredded remains of his clothes fluttered in the night breeze, wafting the smell of coppery blood and decomposition, mixing nicely with the nauseating aroma of the trash in the alley. One skeletal hand wrapped around something in the palm.
"Looks like the rats got to him," the officer said.
"Maybe," the lieutenant allowed. "ID?"
"Found an out-of-date license on him, ran a background check. Brian Tranny, formerly U.S. Marine Corps, stationed in Germany during the height of World War Two. Came back to the states with several medals of distinction." The officer looked over at the body with a disgusted look. "What little good it did him," he added.
The lieutenant nodded. "Any witnesses?"
"No," the officer said. "A tenant around the corner heard the scream, but that was all. Said she called the police when it woke her up, about half an hour ago." The officer shrugged his shoulders. "I would have been out here sooner, but I was up on Thirty-fourth, chasing down a speeder."
"It happens," the lieutenant said. God, he wished he hadn't quit smoking. A cigarette would have been perfect right about now. "What's in his hand?" he asked.
The officer looked down at the remains, slanting his eyes at the closed bundle of bone and eviscerated skin. "I don't know," he responded sheepishly.
"All right. Looks like we've done all we could here. Call the station, tell them we need a coroner crew. Should be able to fit everything in a trash bag," the lieutenant said, his face gravely serious.
"Yes, sir," the officer replied, heading back to his patrol car to use the radio.
The lieutenant hunched down on legs that had seen better days, groaning as a kneecap popped as loudly as a shotgun blast. With nimble fingers, he hesitantly pried back the fingers of bone to reveal the object clutched in the taut restraint of a death grip. The lieutenant grunted, leaving it with the corpse, positive it was something that he had held onto from his days in the service.
The Nazi emblem glinted under the yellow glow of the solitary streetlight.