Main Street loomed one block ahead, a disturbing noise bubbling up over the two- and three-story buildings—the ebullient chatter of a gathering crowd.
Under no circumstances could he run naked onto Main Street.
But at his current clip and without altering his trajectory, in another twenty seconds he would do that very thing.
One street stood between Ethan and Main, and it wasn’t even a street—just a one-lane alley that slashed behind the row of buildings. It gave him one last boost of rage-infused adrenaline to acknowledge that if he rounded the corner into that alley and came upon anybody, anybody at all, he was done.
Hacked to death by a machete-wielding pharmacist.
Nice way to go.
A one-story garage abutted the street, and he figured the corner of the building, when he turned it, would break the pharmacist’s line of sight for about two seconds.
If there wasn’t a crowd waiting for him in the alley, it might be enough.
Ethan had been sprinting up the dead center of the street, but now it was time to make his move.
He veered right, cutting across the rain-slicked pavement.
Must not fall.
Crossed a strip of grass, then sidewalk, then grass again, and as he reached the opening of the alley, it occurred to him that he didn’t even know what he was going to do.
No time to plan. Just react.
By the proximity of the man’s footfalls, he estimated the pharmacist to be six strides back.
Ethan shot into the alley.
Concrete to dirt.
Mist tinged with the reek of wet garbage.
He saw no one in the immediate vicinity beyond a pair of flashlights several hundred feet down, meandering his way.
Ethan kicked his feet sideways and parallel, as if shredding to a stop on skis, arresting his forward momentum as he skidded to such an abrupt halt he could feel gravity fighting to flip him end over end.
He righted himself and exploded back the way he’d come, accelerating straight at the corner of the building.
Be there. Be there. Be there.
The collision was tremendous, Ethan’s forehead smashing flush into the lower half of the pharmacist’s jaw in a bone-fracturing wreck so intense the impact left Ethan out on his feet for half a second.
He snapped back, blood sheeting down his face.
The pharmacist sitting stunned and spitting teeth onto the road.
In the aftermath of the brain-scrambling hit, it took Ethan two seconds to realize that the long, metal object lying on the pavement was the man’s machete.
He reached down and lifted it as the man looked up at him, the horror of knowing what was about to happen dragging him back into coherence more effectively than a bucket’s worth of smelling salts.
Ethan squeezed his fingers into the indentations in the machete’s handle, which had been wrapped in duct tape for improved grip in the rain.
The man raised his arms in a feeble attempt to fend off what could not be fended off.
Ethan feigned a strike and drilled the man in the face with a front kick, his heel thrusting through the wreckage of the man’s crushed nose and driving the back of his head into the pavement with a skull-fracturing crunch.
The man groaned and stayed down, but his two friends were closing in—they’d be here in ten seconds—and behind them, a block back, that army of flashlights moved like a herd of cattle up the street, the sound of numerous footfalls on wet pavement getting louder and louder.
Ethan fled back into the alley, relieved to find that those pair of lights he’d seen last time had vanished.
He ran, needing to make the most of this brief window of invisibility.
Twenty steps in, he neared a Dumpster and didn’t even hesitate.
Ducked around the side, hit the ground, crawled behind it, wedging himself between the metal and the brick wall of the building it nestled against.
He couldn’t hear anything over the thundering of his heart and his doglike panting, sweat and blood pouring down his face into his eyes, freezing, muscles blazing with a lactic acid burn like he’d just hit the wall on a marathon.
Footsteps raced past on the other side of the Dumpster and the sound of them moving away, getting steadily softer, was like music.
The side of Ethan’s face rested on the ground, dirt and bits of glass and gravel embedding in his cheek.
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.