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.
* * *
He had caught her in a moment of vulnerability — or, as she told herself during her darkest hours, a moment of stupidity. She had entered a deserted alley as a shortcut between the drug store and the supermarket because she hadn’t wanted to move her car.
The alley served the businesses that lined a long strip center, and those companies used the space to house their Dumpsters and to receive deliveries from tractor trailers. As her high heels clicked against oil-stained concrete, she mentally reviewed her to-do list for the following day, which included two court appearances and a meeting with a victim whose case would go to trial in just three weeks.
The Gentleman made no noise as he approached her from behind. Before she realized that she shared the alley with another human being, he’d wrapped his arm around her head, covered her mouth and nose with one gloved hand, and whispered vile things in her ear.
He took his time with her, often narrating his sadistic actions as though he were auditioning for a role as a voice-over artist for an animated film. He used every part of her body however he wished, then left her naked and bloody in the alley.
* * *
Caught up in her memories of that terrible night, Ashlee didn’t realize for a moment that a thin pane of glass was all that separated her flesh from the outside world. Though the window was not hot enough to burn her skin, she snatched back her hand as though she’d touched the surface of a lit stove.
Dr. Emil Richards, The Houston Police Department psychiatrist, claimed that she was suffering from agoraphobia, which is the fear of open spaces, and which presented immediately after she was raped. However, Ashlee knew that her anxiety was rooted in a terror much deeper than that, an enlightenment that she’d achieved during her encounter with The Gentleman. Although she’d spent her entire professional career putting men and women like him behind bars, she’d never previously understood — at least not to any significant degree — the human capacity for evil.
The Gentleman was not the only creature in Houston capable of such brutality. Consequently, she felt safe only when she was surrounded by four sturdy walls, protected by a barrier that provided psychological — just as much as physical — reassurance.
Dr. Richards had assured her during their two sessions that she could overcome her agoraphobia, that she could return to work as an assistant district attorney after just a few months of therapy. Returning to her life before The Gentleman was not an option, though, and she had no desire to let someone she hardly knew pick at her brain as a monkey plucks lice off its mate.
It would mean trading one vulnerability for another.
Besides, she hadn’t liked Dr. Richards. His cold, detached personality didn’t seem to lend itself to shrinking heads. Though he seemed competent — and he was, based on the number of theories he’d published in various psychology journals — she’d felt relief each time she left his presence.
Not that she’d expected him to help her. After The Incident with The Gentleman, she could count on no one but herself.
Ashlee sighed and turned away from the window, suddenly incapable of gazing at the outside world. There was so much space beyond her home, so many opportunities for brutal violence, that the mere act of looking outdoors was often sufficient to induce a panic attack.
The digital clock on her microwave oven indicated that it was almost eight-thirty. Darkness would soon extinguish the sun and invite her neighbors into the streets where firecrackers and sparklers and fireworks would dominate.
Ashlee decided that safety lay in motion. If she could keep moving and occupy her mind with menial tasks, she might be able to pass the night without suffering a heart attack.
Her home was designed in a split floor plan with the master bedroom on the east side of the house and two smaller bedrooms on the west side. She’d chosen it because it wasn’t open like most of the homes that had been built in the last decade; the architecture consisted of interconnecting hallways and walls that separated each room from its neighbor. This was an ideal layout for an agoraphobic for whom open spaces were more frightening than communism.
Before she could do anything else, she needed to check each of the doors and windows once more to make sure they were firmly secured.
Five months ago, she’d purchased numerous decorative wall mirrors from an online store, then strategically hung them in hallways so she could always see what might lie around the next corner. She never had to leave one room before checking to make sure the next was safe.
From the kitchen, she entered the small living room, which featured two reclining armchairs and a floral-print loveseat that she’d inherited from her mother. Since she didn’t have an entertainment center, she’d boarded up the fireplace and tucked her television in that brick alcove, using the mantle to store her small collection of DVDs. On the walls hung paintings of ocean views — the only symbols of open space she could tolerate.
In the far corner of the living room, disguised inside an antique armoire, was a second television set, though this one was not for channel surfing. Instead, the screen was divided into four equal quadrants, each of which monitored a different exterior section of her house through their associated cameras’ wide-angle lenses.
At the top right was her front porch; the top left showed her back patio; the bottom two quadrants displayed her garage and the side of her house. At all hours of the day, video cameras monitored the perimeter, and if motion sensors detected movement after dark, flood lamps would flicker to life and reveal the intruder.
She knew that this excessive security bordered on insanity, but her agoraphobia often led her to believe that she’d lost control of her mental faculties. She figured it was better to indulge her fear than to lose what was left of her mind to constant paranoia.
The living room branched off in two different directions: one hallway led to the master suite, while the other wound around a corner to her office and the spare bedroom. As was her routine several times each day, she inspected the master quarters first.
Her king-size bed and matching dresser and night tables were undisturbed, waiting for the hour when she would finally become too exhausted to stay awake. No trace of dust marred the rich mahogany wood of her furniture, and the blue-and-green duvet comforter was spread over her mattress with military precision. With no career and very few friends, Ashlee had plenty of time to devote to housework, and her home always smelled faintly of Clorox and lemon-scented furniture polish.
She peered into the walk-in closet where her shirts and pants hung neatly on color-coded hangers, then checked in the bathtub and each of the cabinets underneath the sink. The crawl space beneath her bed was stuffed full of boxes and other odds and ends, so she knew that an intruder could not have converted that space into a hidey hole.
Satisfied that no one occupied the master suite, she left those rooms and ventured back into the hallway. As she was crossing through the living room again, however, the doorbell rang.
When she’d purchased the security system, Ashlee had thought that a tune called “Arpeggio Bells” sounded like a fun, upbeat melody with which to announce visitors, but now as the notes began to escalate, they filled her with terror rather than good cheer. The chimes grew louder and more piercing with each new octave, bouncing off the eggshell-colored walls of the living room and echoing high into the tray ceiling. They seemed to be urgently advising her to flee, warning of impending danger.
She froze like a field mouse who suddenly detects a cat in its midst, incapable of either answering the door or running away. A thin bead of sweat formed at the nape of her neck, then began to slowly trace the contours of her spine. Trembling, she struggled without success to force her legs into motion.
As the final remnants of “Arpeggio Bells” faded, she heard another sound at the door: a knock, followed by a man’s familiar voice.
She hadn’t realized until that moment that she’d been holding her breath. Her lungs were constricted, almost as though someone were sitting on her chest, and she fought to release the breath she’d sucked in upon hearing the doorbell chimes. Her lungs would not cooperate.
Her hands clenched and relaxed at her sides without surcease, her nails digging painfully into the soft flesh of her palms.
Just answer the damn door, she told herself silently. It’s Kyle, you big baby.
Finally, when she thought that her lungs might explode from the pressure in her chest, she released her breath and hunched her shoulders, the tension melting from her muscles like snow from a rooftop.
Rather than allowing herself to consider who might have been at the door, she walked purposefully from the living room to the entryway and disengaged the three thumb-turn deadbolts that she’d installed after The Incident, simultaneously disarming the burglar alarm from the keypad by the door.
“You scared the shit out of me,” she said as she opened the door, the words tumbling from her mouth on another explosion of breath.
Kyle O’Mara stood on her doorstep, dressed in a cheap brown suit that did nothing to accentuate his good looks. Nevertheless, he was the most welcome sight Ashlee had seen in days.
She pulled him inside before tendrils of falling night could invade her home, then carefully re-armed the security system.
Kyle O’Mara looked as though he’d been chiseled from rock rather than born to a human mother. At six-foot-four, he weighed a lean 250 pounds, and his shoulders resembled a canyon ledge. His face was a mixture of hard planes and deep crevices, tanned from years of working the streets and pockmarked from a vicious case of childhood chicken pox. His pale blue eyes were set deep in his skull underneath a broad, flat brow, which made him look dull-witted. On the contrary, Kyle was one of the most intelligent people Ashlee had ever met, but his countenance ensured that the criminals he interrogated frequently underestimated his deduction skills.
“How ya doin’, kid?” he asked after Ashlee was convinced that the house was once again secure.
“You scared the shit out of me,” she repeated, punctuating her accusation with a punch to Kyle’s solid upper arm.
He wrapped her in a bear hug — a purely platonic gesture of friendship that Ashlee appreciated more than she would ever tell him. “What, it isn’t Halloween? With all these hours they have me work, I get my holidays mixed up.”
“You’re a lummox, Detective O’Mara.”
“That’s what they tell me.”
“And you’re kinda mean.”
“Aww, is the poor wittle agoraphobe afraid of me and the big bad world?”
Ashlee stiffened. She knew that Kyle needled her about her illness in the hopes that she would snap out of it. They had worked together on homicide and rape cases for almost ten years before The Incident, and he often told her how much he missed having her on his team.
Nevertheless, she was unusually sensitive about her phobia tonight, and his comment stung.
Intuiting her discomfort, Kyle quickly recovered. “You actually answered the door, kid. That’s amazing. Three months ago, you would have waited until I picked the lock rather than exposing yourself to the street.”
“Well, I mistakenly wanted to save you from the blemish on your jacket. You know that if Walsh knew you had that lock-release gun, you’d be chained to a desk for the next six years.” Captain James Walsh was Kyle’s commanding officer, and another close friend of Ashlee’s.
“It’s the price I pay for thoroughness on the job.”
“You mean narcissism.”
“That too.” Kyle ambled across the entryway and into the living room with the confidence of a man entering his own home. He flopped his long frame into one of the recliners, then gestured to the other as though he were the host in their dysfunctional duo.
Reluctantly, she took a seat, but perched on the edge of the chair instead of relinquishing herself to its soft embrace, ready to move if haste was required.
“What brings you way out here?” she asked. “Shouldn’t you be protecting the world from illegal firecracker usage?”
“Sure, if I was still in uniform. And if I wasn’t off tonight.”
“How’d you swing that?”
“Told Walsh I was visiting friends out of town. Reminded him I’d worked Christmas and Thanksgiving since I’m the only guy in the squad who doesn’t have family. He cut me a break.”
“Lucky you. I figured you’d be freakin’ out tonight, what with all the hub-ub over our distinguished Founding Fathers. You been jumpier than a truckload of starving kangaroos and I didn’t want you eatin’ your gun.”
Ashlee winced at the mention of potential suicide. She knew that many patients who suffered from agoraphobia wound up killing themselves, but that it wasn’t an option for her. Rather than commenting on his irreverent joke, however, she said, “Anyone ever tell you that you sound like you’re from Diboll, Texas?”
“I am from Diboll, Texas.”
“Yeah, it shows.” In truth, she found his lilting East-Texas accent charming, but she would never admit as much to him.
“Yeah, after we got done ridin’ our horses home from school, we went cow-tippin’ at the neighbor’s farm. Frog-giggin’, too, if you can believe it.”
“That’s why you got that fancy law degree.” He paused and scratched his elongated brow. “Listen, I didn’t just come over here to keep you company.”
Without warning, a fifteen-second storm of firecrackers interrupted Kyle, ripping through the night like scissors through cloth.
“I figured you didn’t.” Ashlee held her breath again, this time not in anticipation of an intruder but with the expectation of terrible news.
“I don’t know if you wanna hear about this, and if you’d rather not, I got it on good authority from some of your buddies at the D.A.’s office that have an antique Cribbage set hidden somewhere in this house.”
“I’d whoop your ass any day at Cribbage.”
“That’s what you think.” Another stream of firecrackers, this one shorter and louder than the last.
“Tell me, Kyle. You can’t treat me with kid gloves just because I’ve fallen off the sanity wagon. I need to know what’s going on in the real world, even if I can’t be a part of it.”
“I wouldn’t even bring it up, but you’ll probably hear about it on the news in the morning.”
“Then better it come from you.” Ashlee stood up and went into the kitchen, certain that she could handle whatever news Kyle had to deliver. However, she didn’t think she could get through it without a shot or two of courage. “Whiskey or wine?” she called from the kitchen.
“What do you think?”
Ashlee pulled two cut-crystal tumblers from the cabinet over the sink, then snagged a bottle of Maker’s Mark whiskey from the pantry, her familiar routine accompanied by a soundtrack of firecrackers. She unscrewed the top from the bottle, wrinkled her nose briefly at the stench of alcohol, and poured them each a liberal serving. After adding a splash of club soda to Kyle’s, she carried the tumblers back into the living room.
“Bottom’s up,” she told him as she sat back down.
After taking a long swig, Kyle set his tumbler on the glass-topped table that separated them and sighed with pleasure. “Wish I could afford that stuff. I’m lucky to have a plastic bottle of McCormick vodka chillin’ in the freezer.”
Ashlee laughed. “I remember drinking McCormick’s in college. We’d pool our money together to come up with the five bucks, then make sure it was gone before morning.”
“It’s definitely poor-man’s liquor.”
More firecrackers, these stretching out for thirty seconds, then a brief series of quick, sharp blasts that were reminiscent of gunfire, reminding Ashlee of the week she’d spent at Quantico in Virginia for a course on criminal profiling. Her room had been directly behind the firing range where FBI hopefuls practiced well into the night.
She used the barrage of firecrackers to sneak another sip of her Maker’s Mark, then winced as it burned down her throat. As though challenging the bourbon to a battle of wills, she poured a larger amount into her mouth and swallowed. If she could conquer whiskey, she could triumph over any adversary.
“Tell me what’s on your mind, Kyle. I assume it has to do with The Gentleman?”
“He hit again.”
Her heart sank. For months, she’d hoped that he was lying in a ditch somewhere, perhaps felled by a drug dealer or money launderer with whom he’d welshed on a transaction. Although rapists were not statistically involved in financial crimes as well, Ashlee chose to keep hope alive.
“No ditch?” she asked, trying unsuccessfully to swallow around the lump that had formed in her throat.
“Is that some kinda lawyer talk I wouldn’t understand?”
“My Grandma always told me that bad people ended up in ditches,” she said with a trace of bitterness that she couldn’t keep out of her voice. “You know, because that’s where they belong.”
“I’ve never found a rapist dead in a ditch,” Kyle said.
“You’re young.” She held the tumbler between her hands, wishing that it was as warm as the burn in her throat suggested. A cold sweat broke out all over her body, the moisture chilled even beneath the thick layer of clothing she wore, and images of a battered but faceless woman danced behind her closed eyes. “Did she survive?”
“Barely. Been in ICU since seven o’clock this evening. Bastard got her in her car outside a Walmart, raped her in broad daylight.”
“No one saw anything?”
“It happened in Channelview, so no. No one saw anything.”
“He left a note?”
“You would know his M.O. better’n anyone.” Kyle reached inside his jacket pocket and pulled out a thin plastic evidence bag. Sealed inside was a white sheet of paper, crisp and flat with no creases or crumple marks. “You don’t have to read it if you aren’t comfortable. This has to be hard for you.”
“Like I said when I quit the D.A.’s office: I want to be kept in the loop on new developments in The Gentleman’s case. If I don’t do something to stop this asshole from raping other women, I might as well eat my gun like you suggested earlier.”
“I wasn’t suggesting nothin’.”
“You know what I mean.” Ashlee took the evidence bag as though it were a precious scroll uncovered from the tomb of a ten-thousand-year-old warrior.
The Gentleman — so named because he felt compelled to write nauseatingly polite letters both to his victims and to the media — had covered one side of the paper with his neat, Palmer-style handwriting. He’d used what appeared to be a felt-tipped pen on the unlined page, and his letters were disturbingly well-formed, each the same size and shape as the next.
Although there had been no blemishes on the page when he’d left it with his victim, the detectives had already processed it for prints and left their purple-tinted residue. Ashlee knew without asking that he had left no tell-tale evidence of his identity.
Even worse, the letter was nearly identical to the one he’d left with her that night six months ago.
Revulsion swelled in Ashlee’s stomach, and the letter slipped from her fingers. The Gentleman’s mention of her was like a punch to the gut, though it confirmed what she already expected.
The Gentleman had never previously waited so long between victims, which suggested that he’d fixated on her — it was a common occurrence among sexual predators.
“I knew you weren’t ready,” Kyle said, reaching forward to grab the evidence bag before it fluttered to the ground. “It’s too soon for you to be thinking about other victims.”
No, it’s really not. I just need a second.” She finished her whiskey in one long gulp and set the tumbler back down on the glass tabletop. The warmth generated by the bourbon was artificial, but nonetheless welcome.
She’d worked with thousands of victims just like Abigail over the course of her career. Although her participation in the actual investigation of violent crimes was limited, she prepared the living victims for trial and convinced them to testify when they thought they lacked the strength to face their attackers in crowded courtrooms. She presented high-resolution images of wounds to jurors and spoke clinically about their nature, described the scars left by sociopaths like The Gentleman, and gave cold, scientific names to human depravities.
Despite her experience with violent criminals, however, she’d never fully understood the range of emotions their victim’s experienced, never comprehended the long-term damage wrought by a single violent event. When it happened to her, she’d been almost incapable of processing the experience. Now, six months later, she was removed from it almost as much as she was bound by it.
“Look, Ashlee,” Kyle said, “the reason I brought this to you tonight is because we believe that The Gentleman has developed a bond with you. Most of his victims are the equivalent of drive-bys, just luckless souls who happened to cross his path when he was feeling the urge. You, however, were a targeted victim, and he chose Abigail because she resembles you.”
“Does she really?” Ashlee croaked, her throat as hot and dry as Phoenix in the middle of August. “Or is the resemblance just a figment of his sick imagination?”
“You and Abigail couldn’t pass for twins separated at birth, but there is an uncanny likeness. Her hair is cut almost the same as yours — what d’ya call it?”
“That’s it. Her eyes are the same shade of brown, she’s about your height, maybe a couple pounds heavier. But you’ve lost so much weight since it happened that she’s probably the same size you were back then.”
“Are you saying I was fat?” Ashlee asked, though she couldn’t manage a smile.
“I’m sayin’ you look like a Holocaust survivor now.”
“That’s in poor taste.”
“Look who you’re talkin’ to. Anyway, if he’s choosin’ victims who look like you, it means he can’t get you out of his mind. Least, that’s what Richards says.”
At the mention of Dr. Richards, Ashlee couldn’t help herself from rolling her eyes. Though she’d agreed to see him twice by the D.A.’s mandate, she didn’t trust his observations on this case.
Kyle caught her eye roll and grinned. “You just don’t like shrinks. Too many guesses, not enough facts.”
Ashlee couldn’t help but take the bait: “You try cross-examining a so-called doctor who insists that video games made a teenage hood rape his own sister.”
“See what I mean?”
“Yes, but…no. Richards is different. I don’t want his opinions to pollute this case.”
Not that she had any say in the matter. Now that she no longer worked for the D.A.’s office, she shouldn’t even be looking through evidence or giving her opinions to a detective.
However, she didn’t want Kyle to get sucked into Richards’s theories on the case. In addition to his off-putting mannerisms, he had tried to get her to identify with The Gentleman.
“If we try to understand a person’s thought processes and emotions,” he’d told her, “we can feel empathy for him. In time we might even be able to forgive.”
Hogwash. Given the chance, she’d put a bullet right between The Gentleman’s eyes and two more in each of his balls. Maybe he’d been bulled in school or abused as a child. Perhaps he’d even been molested by someone he trusted. Ashlee didn’t care and she would never forgive.
“Look,” Kevin said, chasing away the memories of her conversations with Dr. Richards, “we can’t afford to turn away potential resources. If he can shed some insight…”
“Then keep it to yourself,” Ashlee said.
“Well, you don’t need a psychiatric degree to see that The Gentleman considers you a pleasant memory,” Kyle shot back without skipping a beat. “It doesn’t make sense that you’re all cooped up here in this house, never leavin’ even to buy groceries at the market, but you ain’t willin’ to admit that you might still be in danger. Jesus, kid, you’re shakin’ like a leaf.”
Frustrated, Ashlee stood from her chair and paced back and forth across the living room, then jumped when a firecracker shattered the silence. Outside, she could hear the boisterous laughter of her neighbors as they applauded themselves on a cringe-worthy explosion.
“Goddamnit,” she said. “I’m so damn tired of this. Do you know what it’s like to jump at the slightest sound? To know that you can’t even celebrate the goddamn Fourth of July because you’re afraid that some wacko called The Gentleman is going to try and kill you if you step foot outside?” She pulled at the hem of her sweatshirt, suddenly uncomfortable in her own skin, desperate for a reprieve from being herself. “You act like I want to be this way, like I don’t want to get back to being me, but that isn’t the case, Kyle. It just isn’t.”
Kyle stood up and turned her around to face him, holding her by the shoulders. “Well, at least you’re finally admittin’ it.”
“Yeah, but how the hell am I supposed to get past it?”
The Gentleman had raped and brutally beaten fifteen women in the last two years, each in a different location and at a different time of day. Unlike most serial rapists, he didn’t seem to have a comfort zone, and other than the letters he left at each scene, his modus operandi didn’t seem ritualistic.
The police had interrogated and cleared three suspects on The Gentleman case since the rapes were first linked. Consequently, Ashlee had started to develop a thick file on him long before she was attacked, in anticipation of a suspect’s arraignment and subsequent trial.
In hopes of finding something that the investigators and attorneys had never before noticed, Ashlee and Kyle spread out her file on the breakfast table.
Bruised thighs, lacerated shoulders, welted calves, and swollen eyes stared back at them in vivid color. The eight-by-ten crime scene photographs were printed on glossy photo paper and marked only with each victim’s case number. Spread out on the table like this, the pictures were a macabre collage of women’s body parts.
Interspersed among the pictures were newspaper clippings, law enforcement incident reports, handwritten notes that Ashlee had taken about her observations of the case, and the suspects’ rap sheets. The sheer volume of paperwork was indicative of the devastation that The Gentleman had caused.
Since her attack, Ashlee had continued to follow the case, but because The Gentleman had failed to assault anyone else until tonight, little information had been collected since January. Even newspaper articles about the serial rapist had begun to taper off. News in a big city changes from hour to hour.
As she and Kyle sorted through the documents on her table, firecrackers erupted at regular intervals. Her kitchen seemed to be the epicenter of a violent war, a protected oasis in which the machine-gun blasts and cannon shots outdoors could not penetrate.
The July Fourth celebration had begun in earnest, and Ashlee couldn’t think of a worse night for such festivities.
“Why are we even looking at this stuff?” she asked irritably, setting down a police report that she’d read four times without comprehension. “I can recite most of these documents by heart, and none give any clues about The Gentleman’s identity.”
“Way to be positive,” Kyle replied.
“I don’t feel positive.”
“That’s because your nerves are wound tight as a ukulele string.”
“Do you even play the ukulele?” Ashlee asked.
“Could if I wasn’t spending all my damn time chasin’ the scum of the earth.”
“No doubt.” She pushed aside a few scraps of paper and pulled a crime scene photo from the stack. In the picture, a woman’s upper thigh was featured in excrutiating detail, its smooth tan surface marred by a spider web of bruises that extended from pubis to knee. Blue along the edges but a darker purple at the center, the bruise appeared to have been caused by numerous squeezes inflicted by a human hand. Along the top of the bruise, spread toward the outer thigh, were long, thin marks reminiscent of human fingers.
She winced and looked away. There was a time, early in her career, when she could study crime scene photographs with the detachment of a scientist dissecting a fetal pig. Now, however, the reality of The Gentleman’s carnage was nearly unbearable.
Ashlee glanced at Kyle for support, and found him studying another photograph, one that displayed the trail of shallow knife marks that marred the breasts of one of The Gentleman’s victims. His eyes appeared unfocused, almost as though he were staring at something that only he could see, transfixed.
“You okay?” she asked, as another series of firecrackers rattled the windows.
He jumped, startled, and his eyes seemed to quiver momentarily before swimming back into focus. “Sure. Just never knew a case could get to me like this. I mean, you’ve got people who get attacked by lovers, friends, coworkers — some of them shot or stabbed more times than the M.E. can reasonably count. And most of ’em, they don’t make it out with their lives. This guy, though, he lets the women live, makes them suffer with the memory. I’m not sayin’ that it’d be better to die, but it’s worse somehow. Ya know?”
She did. There were times when she wondered if it wouldn’t have been easier just to have died in that dark alleyway.
Her injuries had been far less severe than those of The Gentleman’s other victims. He’d ripped her pants and blouse, left bruises on every exposed plane of skin, nicked her inner thigh with the blade of his knife. She’d also suffered serious vaginal bleeding from his violent assault, but in many ways, her mind had been violated more intimately than her body.
The Gentleman had, in fewer than twenty minutes, deprived her of the naïve but comfortable bubble in which she’d previously existed. No longer were the atrocities of violence displayed neatly in front of jurors in a courtroom; instead, they were real in her mind, a memory rather than something to study, to analyze, to understand.
“You’ll catch him,” she told Kyle, more to comfort herself than to reassure her former colleague. “You have to. If you don’t, what else is there?”
For the next two hours, she and Kyle abandoned the crime photos and reports in favor of more bourbon and a game of Cribbage. Ashlee won, after which Kyle demanded a rematch. Little green and blue pegs chased one another along the antique board like racehorses on a fast track. The comfortable back-and-forth of gameplay helped calm Ashlee’s nerves as the sounds of fireworks diminished with the late hour.
“Do you think you’ll ever leave the house?” Kyle asked after she creamed him at the end of their third Cribbage game.
“Don’t know. At this point, I’m stuck where I am, so I might as well make the best of it.”
“You could go back to therapy.”
She snorted. “With Dr. Richards? I’d rather meet The Gentleman again.”
Kyle was quiet for a moment, studying the gameboard. Then he said, “You really should give him a chance. He’s helped the P.D. solve countless murders and rapes. He has a lot of insight into the criminal mind.”
Ashlee took a long swig of Maker’s Mark. “Well, I don’t have a criminal mind, so I guess that’s settled.”
He dropped the subject, though she suspected he would broach it again in the future.
The sound of the doorbell — “Arpeggio Bells” yet again — interrupted before Kyle could attempt a fourth-game comeback.
Although she had been inoculated against the constant sound of firecrackers, this new noise sent Ashlee’s heart into her throat. Choking back a gasp of surprise, she instinctively moved closer to Kyle.
“Are you expecting someone?” he asked.
“Yeah, the Queen of England said she might drop by.”
“Like you would ever be friends with the Queen.”
“You don’t know. I have layers.” The friendly banter was spoiled by the tremble in Ashlee’s voice. She hated herself for that.
“You still got the cameras hooked up?” Kyle asked.
“Yeah. Monitor’s in the living room.”
She led him across the threshold between the breakfast nook and the living room, past the chairs where they had been sitting just half an hour ago. A single light remained aglow in the room — a stained glass number that looked like a Tiffany reproduction.
Ashlee slid open the double doors of the armoire as the doorbell rang again, then pressed the POWER button on the bottom right-hand side of the television set. It was an older model, circa 1992, and the pixilated colors took a moment before they coalesced into a discernable picture.
The top right quadrant should have shown whoever was waiting on the front porch, but instead the view was preternaturally still. The two flood lights mounted on either side of the front door had been triggered, illuminating the twin white columns that supported the porch overhang. No one waited to be greeted, and no movement in the bushes that lined the front stoop aroused suspicion.
Ashlee frowned. “Do you think it was kids? You know, playing a joke on the crazy lady in the neighborhood.”
“Could be,” Kyle replied, but he didn’t sound sufficiently convinced to slow her racing heart. “Stay here,” he said in his businesslike police voice, the one he reserved for crime scenes when parasitical reporters got too close to the investigation.
He unsnapped his shoulder holster and withdrew the Glock he’d carried for as long as she’d known him, then pointed it toward the ground, both hands wrapped rigidly around the weapon.
She’d engaged the burglar alarm after Kyle arrived, bypassing the interior motion sensors as usual, but arming all the doors and windows. If he opened the door, the alarm would sound and the police would be notified. Ignoring his advice, she followed in his footsteps, then reached for the burglar alarm pad.
“Not yet,” he said in a low voice, almost as though he thought someone had returned to the front porch and was now listening through the thick oak door.
Her hand immediately stopped moving, poised over the alarm pad.
Two foot-wide windows flanked the front door, and Kyle stepped toward the left one, then parted the curtains just enough so that he could peer outside. “Okay, go ahead and disarm it.”
She punched in the four-digit code that she changed once a week as a precaution, then stepped back into the living room.
It was probably just kids, teenagers who had nothing better to do than ring doorbells, who perhaps had no idea that she would be frightened by their antics — or maybe they didn’t care. Kyle’s black Ford Explorer was parked next to her Mercedes in the driveway, but because the SUV was not marked with any tell-tale police signage or equipment, pranksters wouldn’t know that a cop was currently visiting. Had he come in a police cruiser, they might have left her alone.
Despite her internal reassurances, however, Ashlee could feel the beginnings of a panic attack stirring in her body. Her skin felt hot, searing to the touch, and her heart felt as though it had swelled to twice its normal size and was now beating frantically against her ribs, seeking escape.
Her breath came in short, shallow gasps that burned her throat and didn’t seem to expand her lungs at all. If she descended into a fit of anxiety now, she would be incapable of defending herself against an attack.
She leaned against the foyer wall for support.
Kyle, in his bravery and confidence, opened the front door to her home, exposing them both to the great outdoors where any threat might at once gain entry. On the other side, high above Indian Ridge Road, a yellowish moon shone down like the malevolent eye of an awakened zombie, lacking a pupil but nonetheless menacing, shrouded in tattered rags of clouds.
The street was oddly silent now that most of the revelers had retreated into their homes. Ashlee saw lots of darkened windows, extinguished porch lights, and firecracker detritus strewn in the street.
So focused was Ashlee on the moon and the open space beyond her door, and so inoculated against noise from the fireworks, she didn’t at once hear the sound of shattering at the back of the house. When at last she whirled to face this new noise, she was too late.
A man — or, at least, his figure looked masculine — stood just inside the living room, apparently having come in through one of the large plate-glass windows that served the kitchen and breakfast area. Silhouetted against the stained glass lamp’s pale glow behind him, he looked more like a specter than a man.
Ashlee’s scream was too late, too shrill, too vague. Kyle didn’t at first react. She screamed at him to draw his gun, desperate for action against this unexpected threat. Her friend finally whirled from the front porch to investigate the commotion.
The man in shadows ventured closer, his facial features hidden under a hoodie, his entire body still cast in silhouette.
Ashlee got behind Kyle, who had drawn his weapon at her shrill insistence. To her horror, however, he lowered the gun when he caught sight of the intruder.
“I told you not to come tonight,” he said to the man in shadow. “She’s not ready.”
Realization dawned on Ashlee as the stranger advanced on her.
“What the fuck are you doing?” she asked Kyle. “It’s The Gentleman for God’s sake.”
When Kyle didn’t respond to her plea, she lunged toward the shadowy figure, determined to claw his eyes out, knee him in the groin, do something to protect herself.
Kyle grabbed her from behind, his huge hands clamped like vices around her upper arms. His fingers dug painfully into her flesh, and he murmured, “Just relax. This isn’t what you think.”
“Like hell.” Ashlee lifted her right foot and kicked backward, connected with something hard. Kyle’s grip loosened and he groaned in pain.
“You bastard,” Ashlee spit, spinning around to face Kyle. She didn’t want to turn her back on The Gentleman, but right now Kyle posed more of a threat than the stranger.
How had she missed this? Kyle wasn’t The Gentleman — she would have recognized his voice, his build, during the attack. But clearly, he knew The Gentleman. Did rapists work together?
“Ashlee, just listen to me,” Kyle said. Judging by his hunched posture and the position of his hand on his leg, her heel had caught him in the shin or kneecap.
“Not a fucking chance,” she replied. Before he could react, she grabbed his Glock from the holster to which he had returned it and backed against the foyer wall so she could keep both Kyle and The Gentleman in sight.
The open door offered her only escape. She knew The Gentleman had entered through a window, but she couldn’t tell from the direction of the sound which one he’d broken. Plus, she didn’t need to slice open an artery on a jagged piece of glass while she made her escape. And thanks to her rigorous security, she couldn’t count on the back door — unlocking it would consume precious seconds.
Before she could bolt out the front door and into the night, however, she saw The Gentleman reach into his pocket and withdraw his own weapon. A pistol of some sort. Ashlee screamed again, but by that time, The Gentleman had raised his gun and fired once, twice — terrible sounds that make the earlier firecrackers seem as soft as the comforting snap-crackle-pop of popcorn warming in the microwave.
Kyle went down hard, sprawled across the foyer floor.
Ashlee gasped, wanted to help, but couldn’t risk putting herself in more danger.
The intruder — The Gentleman — wouldn’t shoot her. Just Kyle. The bastard wanted more from her than a lifeless cadaver, but Kyle stood in his way. With her protector gone, nothing would stand between her and the man who had victimized her in her dreams every night for the last six months.
In a fraction of a second, she weighed and compared her options, almost as though her brain, steeped in terror, had been elevated to the processing capabilities of NASA’s most complex computer systems. Neither the master suite nor the bedrooms on the other side of the house offered a reliable haven from whatever The Gentleman had in store for her. Even if she was able to wriggle into the tiniest crawl space or lock herself inside a closet, he would be able to get to her. With a gun, he could destroy even her carefully chosen deadbolts and have his way with her — again, not again! — and she would be powerless against him just as she’d been on that night six months ago.
Her only chance for survival lay in the open space that she feared, under the zombie-eye moon that appeared just as malicious as the intruder. The Gentleman had a gun, however, and the moon possessed no weapons of which she was aware, so she opted for the open space beyond her sturdy front door.
There was no time now to check Kyle for a pulse, to pick up the telephone and dial 9–1–1. Besides, just because The Gentleman had shot him didn’t mean they weren’t partners of some sort. Maybe The Gentleman wanted to go solo from now on, so he’d wasted what he viewed as the competition. It didn’t matter — she’d have to sort out the details later.
Ashlee leapt over Kyle’s unmoving body — it was so still! — and raced over the threshold that she had previously been unable to cross. The gun felt heavy in her hand, an albatross that might slow her down, but one she wasn’t willing to relinquish.
Down the rickety front steps to the concrete pathway that led to the sidewalk, she desperately tried to outrun her racing heart, ignoring the burning in her lungs and the fogginess induced by the three generous tumblers of bourbon she had consumed that evening.
Through the overgrown flower beds that had become unruly from lack of attention, over the moss-rock lining of the bed, into the brittle grass that had suffered under the scorching July sun. She paid little attention to the ground in front of her or the obstacles that might impede her path. All she cared about was putting distance between herself and The Gentleman.
Peripherally, she was aware of the darkened lawns and shadowy porches of her neighbors’ homes, but she didn’t stop to contemplate whether help might be sought on the other side of those doors. If she stopped to pound on windows or ring doorbells, those valuable seconds might give The Gentleman time to catch up.
Instead, she continued to run, her thighs beginning to burn, her breath coming in shallow gasps, the air so thick with moisture that she felt as though she were swimming against a brutal tide in the Gulf of Mexico.
Ahead, a group of people gathered on the sidewalk, perhaps a large family out to enjoy the night, the last stragglers of Independence Day celebration. Children and teenagers ran amok on the lawn, waving sparklers and setting up new lines of firecrackers that would drown out Ashlee’s cries for help.
She bent forward against the humid air and forced her legs to move faster, increasing the length of her stride until she was sure she would collapse from exhaustion.
Even has heart pulse became louder in her own ears, her senses became more sensitive to her surroundings. As she ran, she strained to hear even the slightest noise, and she thought she heard footsteps behind her. Tennis shoes, probably, judging by the slap-slap-slap on the pavement.
She didn’t pause to look behind her, but she felt confident that The Gentleman was not far behind, probably convinced that if he could catch her before she caught the attention of the family ahead, he could salvage his wicked plans.
She wouldn’t make it on time — couldn’t, she was weak and he was strong — so she made a decision felt wrong and right at the same time.
Channeling the information that she’d absorbed during a firearms training class she’d taken a few years previously, Ashlee stopped suddenly in the middle of the sidewalk, spun, dropped to her right knee so hard that the pavement met her patella with a resounding crack, then leveled Kyle’s gun at the approaching Gentleman.
He, too, stopped his pursuit, and for the first time she saw his face. His eyes widened in shock just before she pulled the trigger, and then he was down.
Before he hit the ground, Ashlee saw his face for the first time. Emil Richards. The police department psychiatrist. He was The Gentleman.
Cops are taught to keep firing just until a suspect goes down, but Ashlee couldn’t stop herself. She pulled the trigger again, again, again, until the clip was empty and her pressure on the trigger resulted in only a hollow clicking sound. Each bullet, as it penetrated the certainly deceased rapist, was inflicted not only for Ashlee’s suffering, but for the other women who had been unlucky enough to attract his attention.
Even though she knew she had killed him, she approached his body slowly, alert for any signs of movement. His hoodie had slipped off his head, revealing thick dark hair that flopped over his forehead. Dr. Richards — head-shrinker by vocation, rapist by hobby.
Ashlee tried not to look at his blood-splattered chest, which was grotesquely illuminated by the sodium-vapor streetlamps above, but she took her time gazing into his eyes. They looked vacant, which made sense considering he was dead, but now she realized that the hollowness in those brown irises had existed long before tonight.
Dropping the gun on the sidewalk, suddenly repulsed by her own capacity for violence, Ashlee gathered what little strength remained in her legs and ran back to her own house down the street.
If she were a cop, she couldn’t have abandoned a dead body in the middle of a suburban neighborhood. Fortunately, she belonged neither to law enforcement nor to the court.
She was shocked to find that Kyle’s car door was open — he was sitting in the driver’s seat, slumped over the wheel, talking into his police-band radio.
“Jesus, God, are you alright?” she asked breathlessly, bending down at the car door, placing a hand on her friend’s broad shoulder. Part of her still wondered if Kyle had been in league with The Gentleman, if Richards had simply turned on his partner tonight for convenience or retribution.
However, one look at her friend’s face convinced her otherwise.
She’d been certain that he was dead, and she’d been prepared to grieve for him even as she celebrated her attacker’s demise. Never before had she taken pleasure in violence, but satisfaction now coursed through her veins just as surely as the relief she felt in knowing that Kyle was alive.
He finished spitting codes into the radio and turned to face her. “I been better,” he admitted.
She stepped aside so that he could get out of the car and only then did she see the bright splotch of blood on his chest, just below his right clavicle. “Jesus, we’ve got to get you an ambulance.”
“Already called, kid. They’ll be here soon.” He winced as he looked down at his bullet wound, then gratefully accepted her help back up to the house. “Where is the fucker?”
“In a ditch.”
“In the street. Same diff.”
Kyle’s eyes communicated an apology that he couldn’t seem to voice. “Richards wanted to talk to you. I told him tonight wasn’t good, that I had to give you the news about Abigail, but he’s been begging me to let him interview you for the last three weeks. I thought he wanted to help with the case.”
“He was the case,” Ashlee said.
“Yeah, I get that now.”
“I’m sorry I thought you were working with him.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t see him for what he was,” Kyle replied. Then he looked around at the street, glanced at the still body in the middle of the sidewalk, then turned his eyes back to Ashlee’s. “You’re outside. In the open.”
“Do you believe it?”
“I don’t think I’m hallucinatin’.”
Ashlee wrapped her right arm around Kyle’s waist and encouraged him to lean on her. “I think we might just be okay.”
“I think you’re right, kid.”