So that was it. Cleaned out again. Right down to the last tugruk.
He fell against the wall, nearly lost his footing, then staggered upright again and continued his uncertain way down the empty street. What time was it? After midnight, for sure. The streetlights were on in the square, but the narrow side-streets were lost in darkness. And it was cold. Bone-chillingly cold, and winter was hardly here. He had tried to bet his coat on the last game - it was the only asset he had left - but thank blue heaven theyd just laughed at him. They usually laughed at him.
He tripped again, stumbling on an uneven paving stone, and felt suddenly nauseated. He should stop this. Stop the drinking. Stop the gambling. Yet again, he had left himself with nothing to live on till the next public handout, days away. But what else was there? Endless empty promises. That was the story of this country; everyone made promises. But nobody kept them. At least the cheap vodka always delivered.
He stopped suddenly, feeling sick, realising that his bladder was painfully full. The city lights swirled around him, a dizzying scatter of neon logos proclaiming a future he had no part in. He took a step back, trying to regain his equilibrium, the freezing cold aching in his limbs.
Where was he? Still a long way from home, a long way to go. He looked around, trying to find somewhere to relieve himself. There was a cramped side-street to his left, unlit, thick blackness only yards from the main street. He glanced back. The city centre and the main square in the distance were deserted, bleak and wintry in the thin glow of the streetlights.
He turned and began to make his way cautiously down the unlit street. Some lingering sense of propriety made him try to move further into the darkness - he had no desire to get himself arrested, on top of everything else.
He could barely see now, his eyes not yet accustomed to the dark. Tall blank buildings rose up on both sides of him, the lights of the main street lost behind him. He took another step, trying to regain his balance and his bearings, and then he stumbled again, his foot catching on something. Something heavy lying in the middle of the street. Something soft.
He fell headlong, his arm and his shoulder scraping on the rough ground, the impact agonising even in his drunken state. He rolled over, gasping, and lay on his back, trying to catch his breath. Above him, in the narrow gap between the high buildings, he could see a brilliant patterning of stars.
His eyes were adjusting to the darkness now, and he twisted around, trying to see what it was that had tripped him. At first, he couldnt make it out. Just a blank shapeless mound, spread across the frozen ground. And then he thought it looked something like a human figure, but not quite like one. He rolled over, trying to clear his head, trying to work out what was wrong.
And then, suddenly, he realised what it was, and he screamed, the nausea that had been building in his stomach overwhelming him, acid in his throat.
He was still lying there, moaning and retching, when the police patrol arrived fifteen minutes later.
Excerpted from The Shadow Walker by Michael Walker. Copyright © 2008 by Michael Walker. Excerpted by permission of Berkly Books, a division of Penguin Group USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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