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He awoke from the dream more terrified than ever. Sweat drenched his face and body. His pajamas were soaked in it. He was cold and he was shaking. But he was not shaking from the cold.
It was the dream he was shaking from. The terrible dream he had suffered from for months now. The dream that painted him as living a life other than the familiar one of his waking hours.
He sat up, pivoted his legs out of the bed. He sat there, his face buried in his hands. His breathing came in fitful rasps.
It was daylight outside. Through his window he heard the cries of newsboys hawking the early morning papers. "Murder in the night!" one cried. "More Back Alley horror!" cried another.
"Back Alley Bill returns with new and more gruesome horror!" said yet another.
He whimpered in terror.
"Do you see?" said the small, grim voice inside his head. "I told you it had happened again. How do you suppose I knew a thing like that?"
"No, no, no," he said. "This has got to end. It must end! I'm going insane!"
The voice uttered a laugh. "Yes you are," it agreed. "Oh, yes indeed!"
. He got to his feet and stood there by the bed. He looked around. There were wet marks on the floor, made by his own footprints. He had been outside. He had been walking outside while asleep. He saw his bowler over on the table. He walked over to it, touched it. It was wet. He had worn it outside. In the night, he had risen and dressed and gone for a walk in the empty streets outside his flat.
It was obvious. Obvious and simple. Simply obvious.
And during the night someone had been murdered by Back Alley Bill.
He dressed hurriedly, and went downstairs. Outside he motioned to the nearest news vender, and bought a paper. He did not dare look at it until he was in his flat again.
This time, the victim was a woman. She had been murdered after midnight, her body, so mangled from the repeated slashing of a knife, found just inside the mouth of an alley, not three streets east of here.
For a moment he was puzzled. What sort of woman would you find alone on the streets that time of night?
Then he realized the answer. It did not make it any easier for him.
That was the awful part. He was not a monster. Oh, no. William Lane was a compassionate man, one who felt pity and sympathy toward his fellow beings. He had a job and he never missed a day of work. Would a man like that kill people in such a violent manner? Of course not.
But even if that was all true, did he really know what sort of man he was by night? While he thought he slept, could it be that he really roamed the darkened streets seeking out helpless people? Could he really be the killer the newspapers had named Back Alley Bill?
Not him. It couldn't be possible that he could do such vile things. In almost as many months, Back Alley Bill had killed five people. He had encountered them after dark, all within twelve streets of here, and slashed them to death with a weapon the police believed to be a hunting knife.
Lane owned a hunting knife. While he still lived in the country, it had practically been a necessity.
Often it was necessary for him to catch his own food. Without the hunting knife, he could never have dressed his game. He would not have starved but he would have gone hungry on occasion.
There were many theories as to who the real Back Alley Bill was. Many -- indeed most -- believed he was a foreigner. Some preferred to think of him as simply a madman, escaped from some institution that had covered the matter up to save themselves embarrassment. There were other theories as well, and Lane was sure he had not heard them all. For one thing, he did not spend time in public houses, where he imagined Back Alley Bill, his methods and his motives were these days the principal topic of discussion.
It was Sunday. William Lane's presence was not required at work on Sundays. He had the day to himself. He was worn out from his fitful, nightmare ridden sleep. But he knew if he went back to bed sleep would not come to him. Instead his mind would fill with thoughts of Back Alley Bill, and the fears that haunted him.
The weather seemed nice. A little hot, perhaps, but not intolerably so. A day spent walking might wear him out so that he could spend the night in blissful, exhausted sleep.
Because it was worm, he did not bother with a coat. He put on a tweed jacket that was not new by any means, but one of his favorite jackets, and left the house.
At lunch time he found a small tea shop where he hoped the patrons would be too refined to discuss such reprehensible topics as Back Alley Bill. He sat at a table near the back of the shop and ate bread and butter with small slices of beef, and drank hot tea. To his relief, the topics of the people around him seemed satisfyingly genteel.
No one bothered him, either. It was so peaceful, such a change of pace for him, that he almost found himself free of thoughts of Back Alley Bill. Just not entirely.
When he was finished, he still did not find himself wanting to return home. He walked out into the afternoon sunlight and began strolling along the street, paying little attention to his direction. He knew the city very well and had no fear of losing his way.
He was starting to feel better. His concerns were beginning to seem foolish and a little unmanly. Of course he was not Back Alley Bill. He had never killed anyone. It was foolish that he had ever felt he might have.
Once more he lost himself in the simple exercise of walking. His mood had changed. He had at last shrugged off the absurd thoughts and fears that had haunted him. Now it was beginning to get dark. He needed to get home.
He was not a man who kept his hands in his pockets while he walked. For one thing, he did not smoke, so there was no need to reach for a pipe or tobacco. But as he paused at the curb to decide his whereabouts, his right hand went into his jacket pocket and touched something.
Somewhat surprised, he pulled it out and looked at it.
He almost laughed. It was his hunting knife. He must have unconsciously slipped it into his pocket when he left his apartment.
The damned thing was old and dull, and probably would wear out soon. He saw a trash bin nearby and tossed the blade into it.
"Well, that's a coincidence, isn't it?"
A man was standing nearby.
Lane said, faintly puzzled, "What's a coincidence?"
"I saw the knife you just threw away. Look." Now there was something in his hand. "I have one just like it."
Lane laughed. "They're not that rare."
"You're right," the stranger said. "I guess a lot of people own knives like this. But in this day and age, I find it odd that someone would throw away a perfectly good weapon like that."
He kept coming. Lane did not grasp his reason until it was too late to defend himself.