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.
Ethan had caused plenty of suffering and death, but the raw intimacy of violence was diluted from the cockpit of a Black Hawk. Sending laser-guided Hellfires into a target two miles away wasn’t in the same wheelhouse as killing a civilian with a machete in close quarters like this.
One was a few steps above a video game. The other—
The man spun around in the doorway and faced Ethan.
Both men started breathing faster.
“Why are you doing this?” Ethan asked.
He couldn’t see anything of the man’s face now.
Just his profile, the shadow of the knife in his right hand, and a splash of illumination on his boots, the flashlight aimed at the floor.
Ethan had opened his mouth to repeat the question when the light swung up, blazing straight at his face, into his eyes.
Something clattered to the floor.
Ethan couldn’t see anything against the retinal overload, standing blind in a gray darkness without form or detail.
Footsteps were coming, the hardwood floor under the carpet straining with each stride, the man’s jeans swishing as he charged.
Ethan staggered back, his vision recovering.
Captured a snapshot of Yellow Poncho three feet away, the butcher knife cocked back and poised for a downward strike.
Ethan swung—a hard, lightning slash.
The blade met no resistance, and the force of the swipe spun him around and off balance, Ethan thinking, I missed. I’m dead.
The man moved past him, stumbling awkwardly across the room until he finally caught himself on the bar side of the kitchen island.
Ethan regained his balance, and as he improved his grip on the machete, making certain it was sound, he noticed blood dripping off the end of the blade.
Ethan looked back toward the kitchen.
The man had dropped his knife and was facing Ethan, leaning back against the island, both hands clutching the left side of his neck, which made a hissing sound like compressed air escaping from a tire.
Ethan backpedaled to the bedroom doorway, squatted down, lifted the flashlight off the carpet.
He put the beam on the man in the yellow poncho.
The amount of blood was staggering.
It resembled a red spiderweb on the yellow plastic of the jacket, expanding like a time-lapse of a replicating virus, running off in a dozen separate trickles and pooling on the floor. The blood issued from a six-inch gash across the intersection of the man’s shoulder and neck, blood spraying from one end in a fine mist and jetting out from the other in pulses of bright arterial red, the arc of each spurt diminishing as the man’s heart rate crashed.