At first, he lingered on the edge as if steeling himself—a boxer in his corner, moments before the bell.
Someone handed him a bottle.
He tilted it back, took a long, reckless swig.
Then he gripped his painted bat and stumbled out into the circle.
He circled her.
She backed away, veering close to the edge of the crowd.
Someone gave her a hard shove out into the middle of the circle, the momentum propelling her straight at the man with the bat.
Ethan didn’t see it coming.
Neither did Beverly.
Happened fast, as if the man decided at the last possible second.
A single, fluid motion.
Raised the bat and swung.
The sound of maple striking skull made Ethan instinctively shut his eyes and turn away.
The crowd roared.
When he opened them again, Beverly was on the ground, struggling to crawl.
Ethan felt a surge of bile threatening to surface.
The man in the Santa hat dropped the bat on the pavement and strutted off into the crowd.
The bat rolled across the road toward Beverly.
She reached for it, her fingers inches away.
A woman wearing a black bikini, black heels, a black crown, and black angel wings stepped into the circle.
The crowd cheered.
The woman strolled across to where Beverly lay straining for the bat.
She squatted down, flashed Beverly a bright, toothy smile, and lifted the weapon, gripping it in both hands and raising it above her head like the battle-ax of some demon queen.
No, no, no, no, no...
She smashed it into the dead center of Beverly’s back.
Screams of joy filled the street as Beverly writhed on the ground.
What he’d have given to be hovering in a Black Hawk two hundred feet above Main in control of a GAU-19 Gatling, burning two thousand rounds per minute into the crowd, cutting these motherfuckers in half.
Ethan turned away from the window, lifted the coffee table with both hands, and slammed it into the wall, wood splintering, glass shattering.
The effort only whetted his rage.
He craved violence, a small voice inside him suggesting he go down there into the crowd with the machete right now and hack away. Yes, they would eventually overpower him, but God there was nothing he wanted more than to go slashing through the masses, a one-man massacre.
But then you’ll die.
Never see your family again.
Never know what any of this was all about.
Ethan returned to the window.
Beverly lay unmoving on the street, a lake of blood widening around her head.
The circle was breaking down and closing in.
Then all at once, the mob descended upon her.
It was a betrayal to leave, but he couldn’t bear to stand there and watch, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do to stop it—five hundred people versus one.
There’s nothing you can do for her. She’s gone. Now go while you still can.
As Ethan stormed back toward the door, he heard Beverly cry out, the sound of her pain, her utter hopelessness, bringing tears to his eyes.
There could be people outside this door waiting for you.
Must be vigilant.
Ethan stepped out into the hallway.
He shut the apartment door.
The commotion on Main became an indistinct murmur.
He wiped his eyes and headed back the way he’d come, up the hallway and then through the door to the stairwell.
On the third-floor landing, he hesitated, listening, staring down through the railing.
At the bottom, he cracked open the door just wide enough so he could squeeze through.
A sliver of light escaped into the alley.
Ethan stepped down into a puddle and closed the door.
It rained harder than before.
For thirty seconds, he didn’t move, waiting for his eyes to readjust to the darkness.
Then, pulling the hood over his head, he moved south, up the middle of the alley.
In the distance, rain poured through the spherical illumination of a streetlamp, but otherwise, the darkness between the buildings was so complete Ethan couldn’t see his feet beneath him.
The crowd exploded with its loudest roar yet.
He thought of Beverly, had to stop himself from imagining what was happening to her, his grip tightening around the machete, molars grinding together.
Footsteps up ahead brought Ethan to a sudden halt.
He stood thirty feet back from where the alley intersected the next street, confident of his invisibility in the shadows.
A man in a dark slicker walked into view, heading west from Main.
He stopped under the streetlamp and stared into the alley.
He held a hatchet and a flashlight.
Ethan could hear the rain pattering on his jacket.
The man crossed the street and came into the alley.
Turned his flashlight on, shined the light at Ethan.
Ethan could see his own breath steaming in the cold.
“It’s me,” Ethan said, starting toward him. “Have you seen him?”
The light was still in Ethan’s face, and he hoped the man could see him smiling, hoped he grasped the madness that was coming his way.
The man’s eyes went wide as Ethan drew close enough for him to see bruises and blood streaks and stitches and the general ruin of his face, but his reaction—cocking the hatchet back for a strike—came a half second late.
Ethan swung the blade parallel to the ground with a single-handed grip that generated enough force to split him open across the middle.
The man’s legs buckled, his knees hit the ground, and Ethan finished him with three devastating slashes.
He began to run, buzzing with the rush of the kill like he’d done a hit of speed.
Ethan streaked out of the alley and across Seventh.
Right—a half dozen points of light two blocks down moving up the street toward the center of town.
Left—fifty or more people flooding around the corner from Main, flashlights winking on as they encountered the darkness of the side street.
Ethan accelerated, blasting into the next alley, no lights ahead, but over his own panting, he could hear multiple footsteps falling in behind his.
He glanced back—a wall of light thundering down the alley.
Up ahead, Eighth Street fast approaching.
He needed a course change, was already calculating the possibilities, but he couldn’t pull the trigger until he saw what lay ahead.
Ethan exploded onto Eighth.
Right—a single light two blocks away.
Ethan veered right, moving at a dead run as he angled across the street.