When I saw the body, my first thought was to just keep on walking.
This one had nothing to do with me.
There was no logical reason to get involved.
I managed two more steps. If the alleyway had been a little cleaner, there’s a chance I might have kept on going. Or if the guy had been left with a little more dignity, the scene might not have bothered me so much. But the way he’d been discarded-dumped like a piece of garbage-I couldn’t let it pass.
Maybe it was because I’ve had a few close calls in filthy alleyways myself, over the years. Or maybe because I have nowhere to really call “home,” either. But whatever the reason, I could feel a strange connection with the washed-up tramp. It was too late to give him any practical help-he was clearly dead-but I thought I could at least get someone to come and take care of his remains. I felt I owed it to him. Or even to myself. If I was a Good Samaritan for this helpless guy now, perhaps someone would do the same for me when my time came. I didn’t relish the idea of my bones returning to dust in a heap of cheeseburger wrappers and used condoms.
I stepped into the alley. The body was four yards away. It was lying on its back with its feet toward the sidewalk. Its arms were stretched out the opposite way, pointing back into the narrow passageway. The wrists were close together-not tied-and the hands were partly obscured by the debris that covered the ground.
I moved closer and saw there were bullet holes in the tramp’s clothing. I counted six. But it wasn’t the number that caught my eye. It was the pattern. A neat T shape. Four across the chest, level with the shoulders, and two below, straight down the sternum. Very precise shooting. The work of a professional. A police marksman, maybe, or a soldier. Not something you’d associate with a dead tramp. And not something you can easily ignore.
Thoughts of calling the authorities suddenly took a backseat.
I examined the body from all sides. It was crumpled and slack, like a puppet with its strings cut. The best I could do with age would be ten years either side of fifty-five. There was no way to be more precise. His hair was graying and unwashed, and there was three or four days’ stubble on the tramp’s face. His nails were ragged and dirty but his hands were smooth, and he had the clothes of an office worker. He was wearing a navy blue cashmere overcoat, a gray single-breasted suit, a fine-weave oxford shirt-originally white or cream?-and a pair of scuffed, black, wing tip shoes. I had a picture in my mind of a ruined lawyer or stockbroker. He had quality garments, but all of them were stretched out of shape and each one had a variety of tears and holes and stains. The coat and jacket had lost all their buttons. The pants were held up with string. The leather soles were hanging off his shoes in several places. He’d lost his tie. Wall Street was only a few blocks away. If he had been some kind of professional, what a fall from grace the guy had suffered. He stank. I could smell piss and puke and booze. He was seriously unpleasant to be near.
I went through his pockets. I had to work slowly, because he was covered in blood and I didn’t have any gloves. I started with his coat. At first it seemed to be empty, but as I pulled it open I found that a hard rectangular object had slipped through a hole into the lining. I worked it clear and saw it was a flat glass bottle, half full of a clear, colorless liquid. The label said it was vodka. I didn’t recognize the brand. There was nothing else hidden away with it, so I moved on to his jacket. The first inside pocket was completely torn away, but I found something in the other side. The tramp’s wallet. It was still there. Whoever had killed him hadn’t bothered to take it.
The wallet was slim. It was made of shiny black leather, and it looked old. The corners had worn away, it was in holes where it folded, and the silk lining was torn inside. It was slightly curved, as if he normally carried it in the back pocket of his trousers. The credit card spaces were all empty, but where the cash would normally be I found a dog-eared Social Security card. It gave his name-Alan James McNeil-and a number, 900-14-0471.
I put the wallet back and stood up. My next step would be to work back along the trail where the body had been dragged through the garbage. I wanted to find the exact spot where McNeil had been killed, and see if anything there would explain why the body had been moved or how the guy had ended up as a victim. But before I could start, I latched on to a sound from behind me. A vehicle. Moving fast. Coming in my direction. It could have been a coincidence, but I was doubtful. There had been no other traffic all the time I’d been in the alley. And the way the body had been left, it was possible someone was coming back for it. Someone with questions to answer.
I moved into the shadows at the mouth of the alley and looked out, down the street. I was right. A car was approaching. A large, pale blue Ford sedan with white lettering on the side and a lighting bar on the roof. An NYPD radio car. I couldn’t risk being found lurking at a crime scene so I stepped forward to beckon it over, but before I could raise my hand the driver gave a short burst with his lights and siren. Then the car surged toward me. I watched it come closer and swing into the alley, wallowing on its suspension as it bounced over the curb. I had to step back or it would have hit me.
The car doors opened and two policemen climbed out. The driver drew his pistol. He held it two-handed, above the door frame, pointing steadily at my chest. The passenger was holding a short-barreled shotgun. Given the width of the alley, it didn’t much matter where he was pointing it.
“Stand still,” the driver said. “Don’t move.”
The officers were both around five feet ten. They were powerfully built and looked in good shape. Neither seemed fazed by the situation. They’d moved calmly and swiftly when they got out of the car, reacting in perfect unison without needing to glance across or speak to each other. Now they were standing stock still, concentrating, alert without being anxious. Their neat blue uniforms summed them up perfectly. They were nowhere near brand- new, but still a long way from worn out. Trying anything with these guys would clearly be a mistake.
“Hands where I can see them,” the driver said. “Slowly. Do it now.”
You could see where this was going. They had the wrong end of the stick, but I knew there was no point trying to change their minds. Uniformed police are the same the world over. Once they set out to do something, they do it. Argue with them, and you just make it worse. So I raised my hands to shoulder height, fingers extended, palms toward them.
The passenger slotted his shotgun back in its cradle and came round toward me. As he moved closer I could see the name KLEIN engraved on a shiny plate beneath the shield on his chest.
“Hands on the hood,” he said, reaching around to push me between the shoulder blades with his right hand.
I leaned on the front of the car and he jabbed at my ankles with his right foot. I shuffled my legs a couple of inches farther apart, and looked over at the driver. His badge gave the name KAUFMANN. I focused on it while Klein patted me down. He worked fast. He started with my left arm, running both his hands all the way down from my shoulder to my wrist. He did the same with my right arm, then checked my body, my waist, both legs, both ankles, and the pockets of my coat and jeans. He found nothing.
“Clear,” he said from behind me. “No gun.”
Kaufmann nodded, but he didn’t relax in the slightest. His weapon was motionless. My eyes were drawn to the muzzle. It was still pointing at my chest. The tramp had been shot in the chest. Minutes ago, a few feet from where I was standing. I felt the skin covering my ribs begin to tingle.
“I’ll tell CSU,” Kaufmann said. “Don’t worry. They’ll find it.”
Klein pulled my left arm around behind my back. I heard the snap of a heavy press stud being unfastened, then a ratchet closed rapidly. Cold metal bit into the skin of my wrist. He grabbed my right arm, pulling me upright at the same time, and secured the second handcuff.
“What’s your name?” he said.
I didn’t answer.
“Where’s your ID?”
The cuffs were digging into both my wrists. He’d tightened them far more than he needed to.