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In early December, night came quickly to the snow-covered hills and valleys of the high Rockies. The sunset faded. Dusk blew across the land, bending the bare branches of white aspens and tall pines. Stars began to appear. Outside her A-frame house, Brooke Johnson stood beside her Jeep station wagon and listened to the sibilant breeze. Shush, shush, time to rest, to sleep, to heal. Shush.
Less than four months ago, she'd packed up and moved from Atlanta to Aspen, Colorado. Leaving behind friends and a corporate job in human resources, she sought solace in the big-shouldered Rockies where no one knew her history. Her ex-husband Thomas. His infidelities. Her restraining orders. The miscarriage. The humiliation of a marriage gone terribly wrong.
In Aspen, Brooke hoped to make a fresh start at age thirty-two. Though she'd only visited Colorado twice before, she thought of the mountains as a natural paradisea Shangri-la where the air was clean and dreams came true. She'd found a job at a boutique and spent a sizable chunk of her savings on the security deposit for this furnished A-frame nestled on the sunny side of a canyon. From where she stood, she could only see the rooftops of two other houses. Both were vacant during the week, used only on weekends and holidays when the families came up to ski. She liked the solitude, the silence behind the wind. But the magnificence of the Aspen environs came at a steep price; the astronomical rent meant that Brooke had to have a roommate.
And that was her current problem: her roommate, Sally Klinger.
When they first met, Sally joked about how lucky they were to have the same build, same coloring and same long, dark auburn hairand blue eyes.
"Why lucky?" Brooke had asked.
"Because all the clothes that look good on you will suit me just fine!"
Sally took their physical similarity as an open invitation to help herself to Brooke's wardrobe. Brooke quickly realized that this was a minor annoyance compared to Sally's constant cursing, her blaring music and her cluttermagazines, dirty dishes, shoes and clothes strewn with abandon around the house. Not to mention her herd of boyfriends, some of whom felt free to wander through the house in nothing more than boxer shorts.
Brooke had spoken to her dozens of times to no effect. This roommate thing just wasn't working. Sally had to go.
Standing on the long, level driveway that branched off from the steep road leading up the side of the canyon, Brooke glared toward the A-frame. Every light was lit, including the lamp in her own bedrooma probable indication that her roommate had been "borrowing" more clothes. Sally's SUV was parked facing the road, ready to zoom the roughly twelve miles into town to troll for ski bums and beer.
Tonight, Brooke would tell her roommate that she'd had enough. She hadn't escaped from her ex-husband only to fall into another abusive living arrangement. Even though Sally was only a roommate, Brooke intended to break up with her. It had to be done.
She turned the handle on the back door which was, of course, unlocked in spite of Sally's promise to keep the place secure. As soon as Brooke stepped inside, she wrinkled her nose in disgust. It smelled even worse than usual in here. The kitchen counter was littered with beer bottles and two plates with half-eaten sandwiches. Two plates. Very likely, Sally was upstairs in her bedroom with yet another boyfriend.
Dropping her backpack amid the junk on the kitchen table, Brooke listened. Instead of the usual screeches of passion that indicated Sally was entertaining, she heard silence. No music. No TV. Not even the sound of Sally yakking.
"Sally? Are you home?"
She had to be here. Her car was parked outside.
Brooke entered the living room where the sloped ceiling peaked at the top of the A. She stopped short. Denim-clad legs and bare feet dangled above her head. Sally hung by her neck from a rope.
Brooke stumbled backward, banging into the sofa. Her gut clenched, and she doubled over. This isn't happening. This can't be happening.
It was only an illusionher mind had to be playing tricks on her. Her anger at Sally had somehow caused this waking nightmare.
She didn't want Sally dead, only gone from her house. Brooke forced herself to breathe slowly, the way her therapist had shown her as a way to control her fears.
Slowly, inhale and exhale. She grounded herself. Then, she looked up.
Brooke's gaze slid down the rope to Sally, who wore a white shirt, jeans and Brooke's new down vest. On her pale wrist was the delicate Cartier watch Brooke's father had given her when she graduated from college. She couldn't see Sally's face from where she washer long, auburn hair spilled forward.
A scream clawed up the back of Brooke's throat, but she held back. Control. I need to control my mind, control my fear. But how could she? Inside her head, rational thought tumbled into an incoherent whirl. She couldn't make sense of this horror, feeling like she'd stepped onto a movie set where the director would yell "Cut," and Sally would be fine. Yet she still hung there. Dead weight.
Maybe not dead. Not yet. Though unconscious, Sally might still be alive. The thought spurred Brooke into action. She leapt forward, wrapping her arms around Sally's legs, trying to boost her up. Her bare feet were ice-cold. Her body twisted and swung. With a horrible thud, her back hit the wall below the railing.
This wasn't working; Brooke needed help. In the kitchen, she grabbed her cell phone from her backpack and called 911. While waiting for an answer, she raced back to the front room and climbed the open staircase to the balcony.
When the 911 operator answered, Brooke blurted out, "An ambulance. My roommate. She tried to hang herself."
"Ma'am, I need your location."
She rattled off the address as she stared at the knot in the thick, heavy braided rope. She tugged at the loose end that coiled by her feet, then clawed at the tangled snarl looped around the railing. With Sally's weight pulling the rope taut, there was no way she could untie the knot.
"Stay on the line," the operator said. "Tell me what you're doing."
"The rope," Brooke said. "I have to cut the rope."
"An ambulance is on the way. Is your roommate conscious? Is she"
"No." She went down the staircase, her thick-soled hiking boots jolting her legs with each step. "I know CPR. If I can get her down, I can help her."
In the kitchen, she pulled a butcher knife from the wood block near the sink. It would take forever to saw through that thick rope with a blade this flimsy. She needed something heavier.
Outside the kitchen door under the eaves was a waist-high box that held a cord of wood for the fireplace and an ax. She dropped her cell phone on the table and hurried out the back door. Her hands trembled as she hefted the ax onto her shoulder.
Panic magnified her senses. The light above the back door shone with an intense silvery lustera contrast to the pitch-black shadows of night. Over the rush of her own breathing, she heard a rustling in the branches followed by the crunch of footsteps on the snow. Turning toward the sound, she peered into a thick chokecherry bush that rose higher than the top of her head. "Is someone there?" she asked, her voice unsteady with fear.
The lights from the house reflected in a pair of eyes. No more than fifteen feet away, they stared at her through a bare thicket, then blinked and were gone.
Sheer terror washed over her. Had she actually seen something? Those eyes didn't even look human.
More loudly, she demanded, "Who's there?"
The wind blew, and the shadows shifted. She heard no other sound, saw nothing. She had no time to search. Her focus came back to a single purpose: Get Sally down.
Carrying the ax, she ran back into the house, closed the door and locked it behind her. Unable to forget those weirdly shining eyes, she moved cautiously through the galley-style kitchen. Her rational mind was clamoring to be heard over the terror.
Hyperaware of every sound and every shadow, Brooke edged into the front room. The plain, simple furniture didn't offer many hiding places. She scanned the patterned blue sofas and the rocking chairs by the fireplace. She was dimly aware of a terrible smell, a smell that said there was no rush to get Sally down because she was already gone.
And then she saw him. Silhouetted against the sliding glass doors, he darted across the deck at the front of the house. Then he was gone.
Her pulse hammered. Her blood rushed, and she felt dizzy.
Outside the sliding glass doors, the outline of a man took shape again. Her eyes narrowed in a squint, but she couldn't see him clearly. The lines of his shoulders shifted like a mirage.
Illusion or reality? Either she was being threatened by an intrudera killer?or she'd lost her mind.
The wind blew, and the glass trembled. The man reached for the door handle. She prayed the doors were locked. No such luck. The glass inched open.
"Stay back!" She stepped forward and away from Sally's dangling legs. Brooke swung the ax in a wide arc. "Don't come in here!"
She heard a hissing noise. The sound of breathing? He was gasping like the flatlanders who weren't accustomed to the altitude. He was someone who had come from far away.
That can't be! I've left that part of my life behind. Thomas wouldn't come here. He wouldn't dare.
"Show yourself!" she yelled at the man. There was no way she could fight a shadow or a nightmare illusion. If she saw him, she could fight back. Damn it, she had an ax. She wasn't helpless.
Unless he has a gun.
She crept forward, holding the ax at the ready. The handle slipped in her sweaty palms. She tightened her grip.
A face pressed up against the window. The features were unclear. All she could really see were the eyeshate-filled eyes glaring into her soul.
No time to think. No point in screaming. She dropped the ax, pivoted and ran. She'd heard his gasps. He was already out of breath. She might be able to outdistance him.
Racing through the kitchen, she glanced at her cell phone on the table. Where the hell was the ambulance? The police? She flipped the lock on the door, grabbed the butcher knife off the counter and dove into the night.
Her hiking boots slowed her down, but the heavy soles had good traction in the packed snow. She ran down the driveway, passing her Jeep. Damn it! Why didn't I grab my car keys instead of a butcher knife? She wasn't thinking clearly. Her perceptions were all wrong. That one mistake knife instead of car keyscould get her killed.
She saw headlights on the road leading up the steep cliff. The car turned at her driveway. It had to be the police. But why weren't they using the siren?
A bronze SUV pulled in and parked. A tall man in a brown leather bomber jacket and jeans stepped out of the driver's side.
She whirled and peered back at the well-lit house. The intruder was nowhere in sight. Had she even seen him? She could have imagined him, creating a vision that matched her fears. It wouldn't be the first time. She hated the fact that she couldn't always trust her own eyes.
After she left Thomas, she'd had nightmares so intense that she went to a therapist and got a prescription, which seemed to make things worse. More than once, she woke in a cold sweat, screaming. Those vivid, Technicolor illusions felt more tangible than her everyday life. She'd seen danger on every street corner, heard threats in every utterance. Thinking of that terror, she could taste the familiar coppery bite of fear on her tongue. Her lungs ached with the pressure of controlling her panic.
Spinning around, she faced the tall man who stood beside his car. He appeared real. His lips moved, and he spoke.
"What's the problem?"
If he had to ask, he hadn't come in response to her 911 call. When he took a step toward her, she held up the knife. "Stay where you are. What's your name?"
"Michael Shaw." The glow from his headlights showed a calm, self-assured expression. His face was familiar. "We've met. I was hoping you'd remember me," he said with a hint of a Southern drawl. "I was in your shop this afternoon. You sold me a pair of gloves."
Indeed, she recalled. And the memorya reality grounded her.
Michael Shaw had been the high point of her day. He was tall and lean with eyes the color of jade and a smile that could melt a glacier. She'd been flattered when he leaned across the counter in the boutique and asked her opinion as if he really cared what she thought. They must have talked for fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, his accent reminded her of Atlantathe one place in the world she wanted to forget.
When he'd asked her out for coffee, she'd treasured the moment but still said no. After Thomas, she'd had enough of smooth-talking Southern gentlemen to last the rest of her lifetime.
"Why are you here?" she demanded. "Did you follow me?"
"Calm down, Brooke. I'm a cop. Remember? I told you this afternoon. I'm a police detective from Birmingham, Alabama."
She nodded, recalling their conversation. He was a cop. That didn't necessarily mean he wasn't a threat. "What do you want from me?"
"We need to talk. I have something important to tell you, and it can't wait any longer," he said, his eyes falling on the knife she held.
"That's why you asked me out."
"And you turned me down." He clapped one gloved hand upon his chest. "Nearly broke my heart."
He took a step toward her, and she pointed the knife directly at his chest. "Don't come any closer."
"Okay, Brooke." He stepped back and paused, studying her. "You want to tell me what's wrong? Maybe I can help."
Suspiciously, she studied his handsome features. He seemed not to know what was going on, yet he happened to arrive at her house at this particular moment by pure chance. Could she trust him? After being stalked by her ex, she'd learned not to trust in coincidence. On the other hand, she needed help.
"It's Sally," she said. "My roommate."
"Tell me about Sally." His voice was steady and reassuring, just the right tone for a cop. Not that she was entirely sure she trusted cops, either. "You don't have to be afraid. Whatever it is, I'm on your side."
She stared into the darkness at the end of the driveway. Her ears strained to hear the sound of an approaching siren. "The police are on the way. The real police."
"Oh, I'm a real officer. If you want, I'll show you my badge."
"That's not necessary."