Rain drummed on his back and collected all around him in pools that shivered with each new droplet.
He could’ve lain there all night and long into the following day.
Get your ass up. You can’t afford to get stiff.
Ethan placed his palms on the wet gravel and struggled up onto his hands and knees.
He backed out of the space between the Dumpster and the building and crouched for a moment beside the trash bin, listening.
The commotion on Main.
But nothing sounded dangerously close.
He stood, glanced back toward the opening of the alley, and saw the crowd moving past at a jog, climbing the street toward whatever was happening on Main.
Keeping close to the brick wall, Ethan headed in the opposite direction, into the misty darkness of the alleyway.
Thirty feet down, there was a break in the brick—a wooden door.
He looked back toward the Dumpster, to the street beyond.
Now someone was coming—a beam of light sweeping back and forth across the alley, coupled with the crunch of gravel under footsteps.
Ethan tugged the door open, light from inside throwing a patch of illumination into the alley that diffused through the mist.
He rushed through and into a bright stairwell, pulled the door closed after him, and turned to flip the dead bolt.
The cylinder had been drilled out like a cavity and filled in with solid metal.
No way to lock it.
Ethan raced up the narrow stairwell, the stress of climbing sending new shoots of pain through the back of his left leg.
As he reached the second-floor landing, the alleyway door burst open.
Ethan glanced back down the stairs at a large man standing in a dripping yellow poncho, flashlight in one hand, a butcher knife Ethan figured he’d liberated from a home cutlery block in the other.
The man’s eyes stayed hidden under the shadow of the hood, but his jaw was set and his hands, particularly the one holding the knife, were rock-steady, betraying no evidence of nerves.
Ethan rushed across the landing and up the next set of steps as the stairwell filled with the reverberation of booted footfalls.
On the third-floor landing, Ethan crashed through a doorway.
The corridor stood quiet, empty, dimly lit.
Sconces that resembled lanterns had been mounted to the wall at intervals of twenty feet.
Brass numbers centered on each door.
An apartment building?
Ethan heard the footsteps pounding up the stairwell.
Started down the hallway, trying every doorknob he passed.
Knowing any second the stairwell door would break open.
The seventh door he tried, number nineteen, turned.
He tightened his grip on the machete in the event someone waited on the other side, and nudged the door open with his toes.
A small, dark apartment.
He slipped inside and shut the door at the same moment the stairwell door punched open.
Ethan reached up, hooked the chain into the guard.
Lingering by the entrance, he listened as the door out in the hallway swung closed.
The footsteps slowed considerably.
Knocking against the hardwood floor.
No more rushing.
No frantic pounding.
Ethan could almost picture the man in the yellow poncho moving methodically down the corridor. He had to know that Ethan had slipped into one of the apartments, but he’d have no way of knowing which one.
The footsteps approached—
And now that this one was locked as well...
—and stopped on the other side, close enough that when Ethan looked down he could see the light slipping under the door broken in two places.
How the hell had the man known exactly where to stop?
One of the foot shadows on the floor disappeared and the hardwood in the corridor creaked from wood pressure.
Ethan staggered back, slipping around the right-hand corner into a kitchenette.
The sound of splintering wood.
The chain snapping.
Light from the corridor poured into the dark apartment.
Yellow Poncho had kicked the door in.
Standing with his back against a humming refrigerator, Ethan could see the silhouette of the man’s shadow yawning across the carpeting into the apartment.
The shadow lengthened as the man stepped over the threshold and moved slowly down the short hallway that opened into a living area.
Several feet back from the kitchen, he stopped.
Ethan could hear his poncho dripping on the carpet, the man’s elevated breathing as Ethan tried to suppress his own.
A soft click, and then a beam of light shot into the living area and tracked slowly across the wall where bookshelves surrounded two large windows, presently curtained.
Through them, Ethan could hear the noise down on Main steadily increasing.
The light struck a leather sofa and a coffee table, upon which a mug on a coaster exhaled coils of steam that filled the apartment with the sleepy sweetness of chamomile tea.
The light moved across a framed photograph—an aspen grove in full autumn color, snow-dusted mountains in the backdrop, October sky burning blue above it all—and then swept into the kitchen, passing over the stove, cabinets, coffeemaker, gleaming off the stainless-steel sink on its way toward Ethan.
He ducked, crawled across the linoleum, and crouched in the shadow between the island and the sink.
The man came forward, Ethan watching the light beam strike the refrigerator where he’d been standing five seconds ago.
The footsteps moved on.
In the microwave door above the stove top, Ethan locked on the reflection of the man in the yellow poncho who now stood in the living area, staring toward a doorway in the north wall that opened into a bedroom.
Ethan struggled slowly onto his feet, the noise of the crowd masking the popping of his knees. He stood facing Yellow Poncho’s back as the man edged forward with careful purpose toward the bedroom.
Ethan crept around the island and then out of the kitchen.
At the coffee table, he stopped.
Yellow Poncho stood in the threshold of the bedroom, twelve feet away, shining his flashlight into the room.
Ethan tightened his grip on the machete’s duct-taped handle and scraped the pad of his thumb over the edge of the long blade.
It could’ve been sharper. A lot sharper. He’d have to swing hard.
Go. Rush him. Right now while you still have the element of surprise.