On the evening of July 4, a Wednesday, Ashlee Armstrong waited for the sun to set with the trepidation of a convicted criminal counting the hours until her execution.
The six cups of coffee she’d chugged since dinner certainly had not soothed her nerves, but the caffeine was not the source of her anxiety.
Outside, the Independence Day festivities had not yet begun. Ashlee lived in a quiet residential community thirty miles from downtown Houston, but the Fourth of July was an excuse to cut loose and wreak havoc, even in suburbia. Firecrackers were legal outside the city limits, and the cops would be too busy arresting intoxicated drivers to give seemingly innocent revelers a second thought.
Trembling, Ashlee parted the thick pleated drapes that covered her breakfast room window.
The setting sun was so bright in the west that she could easily have convinced herself that she was sitting not at her dining table, but in the debilitating glare of movie set lamps. Steam rose from the asphalt street beyond her front yard almost as though a fog machine had been employed for dramatic effect, and her neighbors’ homes and lawns were as meticulously tended as those in a television sitcom.
Her life, however, was far more reminiscent of a slasher film than a comedy, and she couldn’t help but think that the chaos of Independence Day would provide The Gentleman with just the right amount of cover to finish what he’d started six months previously.
Ashlee Armstrong had not left the sanctity of her home in one hundred and eighty-nine days. After fortifying her house with a state-of-the-art security system, strengthening the doors with multiple deadbolts, installing steel bars on each of the windows, and surrounding the perimeter with motion-sensitive flood lamps, she’d resigned from the Houston District Attorney’s office and barricaded herself inside this Craftsman-style bungalow.
Fortunately, her parents had taught her the virtue of frugality, and at thirty-two, her combined savings and investment accounts were sufficient to cover the bills until she figured out how she could generate income as a recluse.
She absently laid a hand upon the glass window. Despite her sweatshirt and sweatpants, gooseflesh prickled underneath the soft fabric, and the heat radiating from the glass was a welcome source of warmth. Summers in central Texas were blisteringly hot, sometimes unbearable, but Ashlee had been perpetually cold since her encounter with The Gentleman.
Just thinking his name, which was of course not the one given to him by his mother, sent spider webs of ice crackling up and down her spine.
Few serial rapists ever earned the level of notoriety required to be assigned a theatrical pseudonym by the press, but The Gentleman had proved his ruthlessness fifteen times over the last two years.
From her courthouse office, she had spent hours poring over victims’ statements and interviewing family members, hoping to find a clue that might lead her to the The Gentleman’s identity. He had successfully eluded both police and prosecutors, however, with an inexplicable knowledge of forensic science and a keen methodology that allowed him to escape detection regardless of where he chose to strike.
The homes of his victims, their places of employment, a twenty-four-hour fitness center, the bathroom at a popular Houston restaurant —
— dark alleys —
— and anywhere else that struck him as appealing. He seemed unimpressed with investigative efforts and entirely confident in his ability to slip unseen into the night after he’d stripped the dignity from his victims.