The detective leaned up against the cold brick of the alleyway, a cigarette hanging loosely from his lips. In the distance, he could hear the firetrucks wail as they sped through streets still slick with rain from about an hour ago. A deep rumble rolled across the roofs of the buildings, a hint that the dreary weather wasn’t quite over yet. But for now, his dull green cap remained dry.

He took the cigarette from his mouth and exhaled, letting the acrid smoke curl in the dim lamplight. He really should have quit smoking a long time ago. He knew it was bad for him. Maybe that’s why he did it.

The detective sighed, a bitter, heavy sigh, before sticking the cigarette back in the corner of his mouth. He hated nights like these. Hated the waiting, the smoking, the alleyway. But he knew the horrors of the evening were only beginning.

“Well, hello there,” a voice snickered.

Because if there was one thing he hated more than anything else on this godforsaken Earth, it was that laugh. That nasal, halting laugh that wormed its way into his ears and feasted like a parasite on any joy he could fathom.

He took the cigarette from his teeth and flicked it onto the ground, where it lay, the light still simmering. “Horrible to see you, as always.”

“You shouldn’t litter. Aren’t you one of the good guys?”

“That’s what they tell me.”

“Careful, you might start a fire.”

“Isn’t that your job?”

At that, the voice finally emerged from the shadows. The Hunter. Tall, gangly, his ovular head painted with a sadistic grin. A thin, well-groomed mustache pointed upwards at the ends. Unhinged chaos, shoved into the wiry frame of a man.

“Hello, Hunter,” the detective said, lifted his chin to make eye contact with the taller man. “Care to explain your extracurricular activities tonight?”

The grin stretched even wider. “Thought I’d nab some treasure from a wealthy collector’s house, got a little distracted on the way out.”

“Hard to accidentally pour gasoline in all the most flammable parts of a house.”

“I’m a lucky man. Where’s your brother?”

The detective’s stomach clenched but his face remained perfectly still. “Putting out the fire and saving all the people, I imagine.”

“Oh, a hero, a hero. The great city, led by their brave hero!” The Hunter snickered again, so nasal someone could probably see his nose quivering from the next street over. “And the hero’s little brother, waiting in an alleyway for little old me to show up. Isn’t it nice, everything being so predictable?”

The detective took a slow, deep breath, drinking in the humidity that hung in the air. “I’ve heard all this from you before, Hunter. You’re right. It’s predictable. Right down to your speeches about my inadequacy. Maybe we can skip it this time?”

“Oh, but it’s so much fun!” the tall man shrieked. His eyes gleamed with what could only be described as exhilaration. “Would you like to know what else I did today? It was great fun.”

“I don’t—”

“I cut in line at the coffee shop. Stole a few cards from some guy’s wallet. Told a woman her interview was in the wrong building just to watch her run. Took candy from a baby.”

The detective raised an eyebrow. “And set the wealthiest woman in town’s mansion on fire. Can’t forget that.”

“Princess had it coming,” the Hunter said dismissively. “Besides, isn’t she annoying? She could use a few humble reminders. You can’t tell me you’ve never thought about taking her down a few pegs before.”

The detective sighed. He was exhausted. He didn’t sleep much anymore. Didn’t see much of a reason to wake up feeling refreshed.

He leveled his gaze with the Hunter again. “If we’re done recounting your deeds of the day, why don’t we take a ride down to the police station. I’m sure they’d be happy to see you.”

The Hunter chuckled. “You won’t turn me over to the police,” he said.

“Oh? Let’s make that bet, put some money on it. I’m sure you have enough by now.”

“It’s not about having the money, it’s about getting it,” the Hunter sneered. “But that’s not the point.” His grin— that awful, awful grin— returned. “You’ll never turn me into the police. You can’t.”

“And why is that?”

“You need me.”

The detective was silent for a moment before he decided to speak. “If I were a different man, I’d laugh. Why would I ever need a scumbag like you?”

The Hunter cackled. “Because you need a purpose. Your hero brother runs around, saving the city, signing posters, kissing babies... and then there’s you. The brother who tags along. Not quite as fast, as smart, as GOOD as he is. Must get tiresome, eh? That’s why I’m here. Someone to wait for while the big show is going on, something that makes you special.” He took a step forward. “But it’s never going to make a difference. He’ll never see you, not really. And you’ll never stop being afraid of me.”

“I’m not afraid of you,” the detective said calmly, his heart beating faster than he could have ever imagined.

“Of course you’re afraid of me!” the Hunter hissed. “I am nothing but all the sins you were too much of a coward to commit!”

There was silence in the alleyway. The fire truck sirens had stopped.

The detective took a shaky breath. “So what about you, then? If you’re just here for me, and I’m nothing, what does that make you?”

The Hunter leaned back, and for the first time, there was a hint of a man in his eyes— something beneath the inane laughter and crooked smiles. “I am less than nothing. Defined by who I’m not. Manifested afterthought, ghost to fill the floorboard cracks. A wisp of something to haunt you.”

The detective felt a lump welling up in his throat, a cry threatening to burst. But all he said, a trembling whisper, was, “why?”

The Hunter smiled. He laughed. That awful, nasally laugh that felt like bile dripping down the back of your throat.

“Because you are a man who needs to be haunted,” he whispered.

And with a sudden gust of wind, he was gone. The detective stared down into a puddle of dirty water, his sunken eyes reflecting back. A poorly groomed mustache, wilting at the edges. A thin frame drenched in fatigue and emptiness.

Silence but for the wind rustling thrown-out paper and distant cars passing by. No trace of the Hunter in the alleyway.

Almost like he had never been there at all.