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Jennie Chapel’s day had been a long one. She knew she shouldn’t have agreed to take a double shift at the hospital, and as 1:00 A.M. brought sixteen straight hours of work to an end, total exhaustion was creeping into every joint of her five-foot-one frame. She winced, rolling her neck and closing her stinging eyes as she waited for the elevator.
“I thought only residents slept standing up,” a familiar voice said.
Jennie looked at Rita Barrera, her friend since medical school and a coworker for six years. As usual, Rita looked gorgeous—tall, blond, and glamorous, making Jennie feel even grimier.
“It’s been one **** of a day,” Jennie said, running a hand through her shoulder-length beige hair.
“That’s what you get for telling Clyde you’d do his shift for him,” Rita said.
The elevator opened and they stepped on, barely finding space in the crowd of workers going off duty. They resumed their conversation in the downstairs lobby.
“Well, Clyde had to go to a wedding,” Jennie said. “And he did fill in for me when I had the flu last winter.”
“But I don’t want to do this again in the near future,” she said. “Double shifts are for young people.”
“Are we old people?” Rita asked with a frown. “Last I looked, I was only twenty-nine.”
Jennie pushed her way through the front door into the cool April night.
“Sometimes I feel old,” Jennie said. “I guess it’s just fatigue. And we’re thirty-five, sweetheart. Not twenty-nine. Sorry.”
“And here I was living in blissful ignorance,” Rita sighed. “Well, maybe you should come up to the maternity ward sometime. The sight of all those babies bundled up like little pink and blue tacos is rejuvenating.”
Jennie smiled wearily. “Tacos. I always thought they looked like potatoes.”
“Thank God your vacation starts next week,” Rita pointed out.
“I wish it started right now,” Jennie said, “but I have to come in just one more day to tie up a few loose ends.”
“Then two whole weeks to yourself,” Rita said. “Any plans?”
“Well, I might drive into Denver,” Jennie said. “To do some shopping and sightseeing.”
Jennie’s divorce had cut off any ties she had to a family, since her parents had died when she was very young. Rita wished she had some time off herself, to keep her friend company. The only girl among five children, she considered Jennie the closest thing she’d ever had to a sister.
They had reached Jennie’s truck, a navy-blue Bronco II. The hospital was on the edge of the town, and there were virtually no buildings between it and the mountains. Ubbin Falls was situated just wet of Pueblo, in the valley formed by the Front Range and the Sangre de Cristo Range. The snowcapped peaks of the Front Range loomed majestically in the distance, a virtually unbroken line of the Rockies that cuts through the middle of Colorado. To Jennies stinging, weary eyes, they might as well have been the terrain of distant planet.
“Enjoy yourself,” Rita said as Jennie jumped into the truck. “I’ll see you when you get back.”
“So long,” Jennie said, yawning again.
“Put on the radio,” Rita suggested. “You gotta stay awake.”
“I will. Promise!” Jennie said.
Though the Front Range is the most densely populated area of Colorado, the twisting mountain roads were virtually deserted at this late hour, and she passed only a few cars as she made the 30-minute trip home. The sight of her garage was a welcome one.
She pulled the truck to a stop, opened the garage door with a remote, then rolled the truck inside. As she got out, the garage door started sliding back down all by itself. There was an override switch at the back, and she jumped from the truck to press it, but the door continued its descent, leaving Jennie in darkness when it stopped.
She let out an annoyed groan and felt her way along the way to the back door. She tried her key. The click was satisfying, but the door wouldn’t budge. Jennie fought a growing sense of claustrophobia, forcing herself to see that she had turned the key the wrong way. She tried again, heard a click, but the door still wouldn’t open.
Just then Jennie heard the barking of her dogs. Attuned to the pair of animals that she’d had for five years, she knew immediately that something was wrong. The barking was shrill, frightened. Was there an intruder on her property? Had someone deliberately tampered with the doors?
She inhaled heavily and peered into the dim room at her rusty tools. There—an ax was just what she needed! Maybe if she broke all the glass on the back door, and smashed the frame, she could crawl out.
The barking rose to a frenzied pitch as she pulled the ax down from the wall.
Something shifted on the other side of the room. Jennie froze, the ax held tightly in her white-knuckled hands. There was someone else in here!
It seemed her heart had quit beating. She moved on stiff legs to the back door. Then, forcing herself to pretend there was no one watching from behind, she swung at the windows. Glass flew out onto the pathway that led to her house. Cool air blasted through the new opening, and Jennie began to scream. She knew nobody would hear her, but she couldn’t stop. Again and again she swung the ax.
The voice was soft, hard to identify as male or female. Jennie spun around, raising the ax to use as a weapon. She barely had time to register a pair of dark eyes as the ax was wrenched from her grip. Even as the dogs barked, a sweet-smelling mist as cold as ice struck Jennie in the face. Everything faded to black.