None of the other cops made eye contact with me as I stepped into the alley. They had parked the patrol car across the entrance; none of the lights and sirens were on, but it still ensured that we wouldn’t be deserved. The sergeant, standing nearest to the narrow alley, gave me a brief nod. I returned it as I passed.
The man was inside. He was down on his knees. And he was grinning.
The alley was a dead end. It only went maybe twenty feet in before it ended at a brick wall, at least ten feet high. Dead end. For one of us, at least.
I kept my face blank as I strolled in. It took an effort. He was on his knees on the ground, like I said, his hands behind his back. I knew that he was wearing cuffs; otherwise, the other cops wouldn’ta let him out of their sight.
He kept on grinning, smiling cheekily up at me as I came to a stop a couple feet away. “Officer, I don’t see what all the fuss is about,” he said, his tone jovial.
His teeth were perfect. The voice in my head wanted me to rearrange them with my boot. “We caught you this time,” I said. My hands dipped into the pocket of my coat, reaching for my smokes. I’d quit the habit a few weeks ago. Hell, I’d quit the habit a lot of times. It always came creeping back.
“Caught in the act,” I went on, pulling out one of the crumpled white tubes. “Real stroke of luck, it was for us. Otherwise, you would’ve slipped away, clean as always. But you’ve pushed too hard. What’s this been, now, four women? Five?”
He blinked a couple times, but that damn grin never wavered. “I really don’t know what you’re accusing me of,” the man said. “But hey, you’ve got the cuffs on me, and I’m not going to resist. Haul me downtown, let me make my call, and I’m sure this can all be sorted out.”
I didn’t say anything, just stared down at him as my cigarette caught the flame, puffing into life. And then I pulled back my foot.
He wasn’t ready for the kick, and I caught him right in the soft part of the stomach. He doubled over, falling forward. Now he was on the ground like the others. Almost like a slide show, their images flickered across my mind.
Five women, all dead. Four in the last week. I’d had to show up to every crime scene. All in alleys, just like this. All of them with their throats cut. Eventually.
“They suffered,” the coroner told me,each time I went down to visit him. “Extensive knife work. This guy’s good, and he’s a bastard. He knows how to make them suffer.” The man went on, pointing at details, but I blocked it all out.
Each time, each scene, I’d stood by, kept my face blank, and said as little as I could. And inside me, voices howled, screaming that I would find this guy. He was gonna burn.
All of them had been splayed out on the ground, just like this man was now. But none of them had grinned.
After a few coughs, he managed to get himself under control, to straighten back up to his knees. He tried grinning up at me, but I drew back my foot again. That grin vanished instantly, as if it had never been there at all.
“Okay, let’s drop this,” he hissed at me. “I know you. ‘The cop on the take.’ Everyone knows you’re dirty. Is that why they sent you to come get me? The Mob upset about how I treat their fair jewel of a city? Too bad you got me on official police business, and now this all has to play out.”
I knelt down beside him, staring into his face as I puffed at my cigarette. The darkness inside my head screamed at me, itching to wrap their shapeless, formless fingers around his scrawny little neck. I said nothing, and he grinned at me, a savage flash of teeth.
“Here,” I said. “Let me help you up.”
Those images were still flickering through my mind as I walked behind him, reaching down. I’d slip my hands under his armpits, help him up, and he’d go off to lockup. He’d face jail, a trial, a cell. All those women faced was his grin as he carved at them with his knife. Five faces. They would have been beautiful, before. They weren’t any longer.
The sergeant, outside the alley. He was a good cop. He still had a soul, hadn’t lost it like me. But I wondered how long that would last. When he had been where I’d been, seen what I’d seen, would he still be able to resist that darkness inside his head?
The man in front of me. He had given into the darkness, given himself over to it. But me and the darkness, see, we had an understanding. A bargain, you might call it. Late at night, with no one around for miles, we’d talked. I offered it a deal. Punish the evil, I pleaded. And the darkness eagerly accepted.
“Come on,” the man in front of me said, impatient. His words were mocking. “Let’s go. Do your duty as a cop.”
I bent down, looped my hands beneath his armpits to lift him up. His eyes went wide as the knife went in. “Nah,” I replied. “I’ll do my duty as a human being.”