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STORM SURGE ~ LOVE IN SMALLFOOT ALLEY
A FAMILY AT LAST~ WEEKEND AT LAKE LUCY

Love in Smallfoot Alley takes place in southwest Alabama, in fictional Chatahoula County, about an hour and a half north of the state's port city, Mobile.  An area once known as the Canebrake, it is rich in history and folklore.
Today, the area is home to the timber industry, petroleum refineries, and outdoor recreation dominated by forests, swamps and the Black Warrior, Tombigbee and Alabama Rivers.

Chris Dupree never believed in crypto-primates --
until they threatened the woman he loved.

... ...

Romantic suspense
with a touch of mad-scientist sci-fi
and a whiff of the paranormal

A blinding rainstorm ... terrifying, red-eyed creatures ... a crash into a flooded ditch...  Will Leslie Hoffman survive the trip to her new job? Is her gorgeous, taciturn rescuer trustworthy, or another danger?

Chris Dupree -- misogynistic, semi-reclusive, blind to his loneliness. Can sweet, genial Leslie revive his dormant heart?

A young man found in an irreversible coma... a grieving brother obsessed with learning the cause... a shrewd PI hired to ferret out the truth. 

Does a frightened IT tech hold the answers? And will he reveal them in time to save Leslie from the same fate?


Excerpt

Chapter One

Bristol, Alabama
January 7, 2013

         Leslie Hoffman was the Bristol Cafe's sole patron, although it was only a little before six p.m. Beyond the the gingham-curtained window, sunset was obscured by a thunderstorm, and the winter night was black, wet and wild.
      "And you're planning on getting to Sommers tonight?" asked the rotund, gray-haired man behind counter. The tilt of his head accompanying his question suggested he hadn't heard her correctly. 


      "You said it's only twelve miles from Bristol, isn't that right? Just minutes away." 
      "In good weather," he said. "I'd be leery of traveling any further in this storm." 
      I'd just as soon not sleep in my car," Leslie said, alluding to the lack of lodgings in tiny Bristol.
      "Well, it ain't much but there's a big sofa in the office. Blanket, pillow in the closet back there. You're welcome to it. It's warm, and it'd be safer than driving through this weather. There's a little TV set, too, and if the satellite signal can get through, you can watch Alabama beat the Irish and win the crystal football." The prediction brought a grin to his face. "Course it's up to you."
      "Someone is expecting me in Sommers, so I'll press on. But thanks for the offer."
      She paid for her meal at the old-fashioned cash register, donned her raincoat and stepped out to her compact SUV parked at the curb. Powerful gusts threatened to toss her about like a pinball and drove needle-like raindrops against her face and hands. Using an umbrella, or trying to, would have been futile, as she knew from her arrival here half an hour earlier. She was soaked anew and shivering from the chill before she threw herself behind the wheel and slammed the door.
      Wind-driven rain pounded on the roof like thousands of pebbles and drowned out the thunder, except for one crack that accompanied a bolt of lightning. In an instant, Bristol, Alabama was left in darkness.
      Heart thudding, Leslie started the motor of the little SUV and turned both heater and fan to their highest settings. The vehicle rolled onto the deserted street and into the tempest caught in her headlights. Visibility was near zero and she drove at a crawl.
      A reflective highway marker glowed up ahead. Sommers 12 miles. Twelve miles in this storm? Was she out of her mind?

* * *

      I've gone more than twelve miles. I don't see how, but I must've taken a wrong turn somewhere...
      The reality of her situation dawned. She was caught in a violent thunderstorm on a cold night in January and lost.
      Her hands cramped from clutching the steering wheel. Squinting and anxiety had combined to give her a pulsing headache. She could barely make out the road through the windshield distorted with rain, against which the wipers were nearly useless. High winds buffeted the vehicle. Any moment, the tires could lose their grip on the pavement and slide onto the mud-soft shoulder. She and her transportation could end up in a flooded ditch.
      Is that a light ahead?
      She vowed to stop, wherever she was, at any sign of habitation.
      It was not a light but another reflective road sign. It read Erwin.
      Erwin? Where on earth is that?
      More to the point, what was it? Not a town, or even a crossroads community. There were no stores, no houses, no structures of any kind, and no lights. But the shoulder widened and led to a flat, open space, almost like a graveled parking lot, though no building accompanied it. Still, she pulled off the road, switched on the dome light and reached for a map on the seat beside her.
      "I make it through this, I will get GPS installed," she muttered as she unfolded the map and searched for her whereabouts. She found Bristol and Sommers, but no Erwin.
      "Well, that's just great. I'm in the twilight zone."
      Her fear abated a little since she had something to busy herself with, but she lowered the map when chills crept across her skin. She tossed the map aside and turned off the dome light.
      Movement. Outside the back window. Not wind or rain, but something alive and stealthily approaching the SUV. She shifted to reverse to activate the backup lights.
      What she glimpsed in the rear-view mirror sent a neural alarm through her such as she'd never known. Something men? animals?-- slinking toward her. Two of them, long-haired, dressed in rags or was it fur? -- with luminous red eyes.
      A burst of fear froze her for a second, followed by greater fear that energized her icy hands. She double checked the door locks before shifting into drive and stomping the gas pedal. Wheels spun and sprayed gravel before they found traction. The SUV leaped forward, adding to her alarm, and she eased up on the accelerator to move off at a less frantic pace.
      She had not imagined the creatures in the mirror because she heard bumps, like fists pounding against the fenders, as she drove away. The SUV careened onto the blacktop and, spurred by a spike in terror, Leslie again pushed too hard on the gas pedal. The vehicle whirled around and ran off the other side of the road, half into a ditch filled with churning water.
      Tears blinded her as she tried to maneuver the SUV out of the ditch. The drive wheels spun furiously but the vehicle didn't move.
      Four-wheel...four-wheel... How? Where? Oh, under the shifter...
      She yanked on the T-bar that locked in the the four-wheel drive, something she'd never done, and pressed the gas pedal. She vehicle seemed to move forward and hope surged inside her. But it was over in an instant. Both the engine and the tires whined uselessly and the vehicle actually bogged down a little.
      Please, oh, please! Move, roll, please!
      Her pursuers reached her, knocked on the windows, rocked the car. Rain cascading down the glass distorted their faces, but she saw enough to lift the hairs on her neck. They were man-like but not human and their eerie vocalizations, high pitched with an echo effect that sounded almost electronic, formed no words.
      They would break a window and get to her any moment. Terror turned to madness and her scream filled the night.

* * *

      Leslie's scream ended abruptly when she saw headlights emerge from the darkness and move closer. A vehicle pulled off the pavement near her SUV. The two creatures or men or whatever they were ran toward the woods behind her and disappeared in darkness.
      Someone got out of the truck wielding a very bright flashlight, swept the beam across the hood toward her vehicle, and into the night, left and right. She barely made out the form of the newcomer when he stepped around the front of the truck, through the beams of the headlights--a man clad in a long duster with a shoulder cape. A wide-brimmed cowboy hat shielded his eyes from the rain. He approached her SUV and tapped on the window.
      "Hello," he called, his voice raised to carry above the pounding rain. He held the flashlight against the back window and slanted the beam around inside.
      She rolled the window down a few inches and gulped back a sob. "Oh, thank goodness! I was so scared! Those--" Empty lungs made further speech impossible. It was as if the the scream had knocked the breath out of her and she struggled for air.
      "Are you all right?"
      Deep gasps wracked her, but she felt a measure of calm, or at least coherence, returning. "I sort of... hit my head...on the steering wheel. But...I don't think I'm hurt. I need--"
      "I'll take you to the hospital in Catesville."
      "No, I just need to get my car out of the ditch and get to Sommers."
      "That'll take a wrecker. Have to wait for the weather to clear. If you're injured, you need to see a doctor."
      "No, really...."
      "You can't stay here."
      He was right. No point in resisting. She pulled her keys out of the ignition, unfastened her safety belt and snatched up her purse.
      "I have luggage," she said as she struggled out of the tilted vehicle and, blinded by the pelting rain, promptly stumbled over something and went down on her hands and knees in the mud.
      He took hold of her arm, helped her to her feet and led her to the truck, idling at a low rumble. He opened the door and said, "Get in. I'll get your luggage."
      Trembling from the frigid air, she climbed up into the spacious crew cab and dropped her keys into his outstretched hand. Grateful for the warmth flowing from the dashboard vents, she kept an eye on the stranger as he brought her suitcases to the truck. The small back seat was folded out of the way to accommodate something behind the driver's seat. something large and boxy and covered with a tarp He slid it aside to make room for her luggage.
      Back behind he wheel, he handed her the keys.
      "I locked it," he said.
      "Thank you." She dropped them into her purse and glanced out the window. "Did you see where those...men went?"
      "What men?" The truck's motor rumbled as he made a U turn and headed northwest.
      "There were two of them. Real short, five feet tall, maybe. Long hair, ragged clothes that hung off them in tatters. They chased me."
      He shook his head. "Chased you? I didn't see any other vehicles."
      "They were...on foot." She cleared her throat, suddenly aware of how crazy her story sounded.
      He didn't speak for a moment. "I didn't see any men...on foot. But you can file a report about them with the Sheriff's Office in Catesville."

* * *

      He brought the truck to an unexpected stop. In the beams of the headlights, roiling, muddy water flowed across the road. The tops of concrete bridge rails barely cleared the water. A sign rising up out of the turbulence read Crow River.
      "Bridge is awash," the stranger said.
      "Wow," Leslie murmured as the implication dawned. "That's not a very high bridge, is it?"
      "It's high enough for recreational craft, when the river's not flooded. The Crow is not commercially navigable." He turned the truck around and headed back the way they'd come, but as they reached the area where they'd left her vehicle, he slowed and turned left.
      Leslie peered ahead and her terror, which had calmed to simple fear, rose again. The road was paved but in need of repairs. Vegetation, stark and leafless, pressed close in on each side, and the skeletal structures of defoliated tree limbs entwined overhead, like a tunnel into a nightmare.
      "Where does this road go?" she said, unable to keep the quaver out of her voice.
      "It goes by my place and intersects with a county road into Catesville."
      "I wonder if you could take me--" She cleared her throat and willed her frantic nerves to calm. "Please, excuse my lapse of manners. My name is Leslie Hoffman. I'm on my way to Sommers where I have a new job, but I took a wrong turn and ended up here. If you could just take me back to Bristol, I might have a place to stay there tonight."
      Again, he said nothing for a moment before lifting a shoulder and putting the truck in reverse. This road was too narrow for a U turn and he backed all the way to the main highway, steering with his left hand, his body turned sideways so he could see out the back window.
      Headed east again, they passed her vehicle--she barely made it out in the flash of lightning--and crept past the Erwin sign. For some reason, the familiarity of it comforted her.
      No more than ten minutes later, they were stopped again by turbulent water flowing across the pavement.
      Leslie's throat constricted when she realized the situation. They were trapped by flooded roads. "Do you suppose that water's shallow enough there to drive through? I mean, a big, high truck like this...."
      "It's Hatchet Creek," he said. "The water's higher than the bridge rails."
      She jammed her knuckles against her teeth and blinked back tears. "I came this way just a little while ago."
      "Yep, these things can happen quick. That's why they're called flash floods."
      Without further talk, he turned the truck around and dove back to the road over-arched with bare trees. Waves of cold fear washed through Leslie's body and coalesced into a painful lump in her chest.
      Except for the strangely nonhuman little men, everything behind her seemed safer--staying locked in her car back in the ditch; staying in the cafe office...staying in nice, safe Montgomery doing transcription, which she'd wanted to escape for so long.
      She glanced down to her mud-coated fingers aching with cold and cut a sideways look toward ... what? Her rescuer?
      He was soaked, too. His oilskin duster was slick with rain. The cowboy hat had kept the rain out of his eyes outside, but the brim dripped. His face, bluish by the light of the dash, took her aback. He appeared to be young; under thirty, and not bad looking in profile. But there was something about him, his laconic way of speaking, his distance, that frightened her.
      What was he doing out on a night like this? Why would he subject himself to the violent storm to help a stranger? Was he a Good Samaritan, or something else? He could be worse than the two who had pursued her earlier, if they even existed. She might go missing, and nobody would ever see or hear from her again. She might end up raped and murdered and buried deep in the cold, skeletal woods along the edge of Hatchet Creek.
      Hatchet...hatchet...axe...axe murderer....
      The drive seemed to last forever. With each bumpy, rain-soaked minute, her fear grew and when he braked the truck and turned left, it exploded behind her solar plexus. By the indirect light from the headlamps, she could see the silhouette of a structure but details were obscured. She had the impression of an old, run-down country house -- and dark, because the storm had likely taken out the electricity.
      "Wait here," he said. He stepped away from the truck and she sat alone, trembling like a puppy as terror gripped her throat and drained the remaining warmth from her body. Her raincoat was fleece-lined but nevertheless inadequate for this damp, penetrating chill.Before the headlamps snapped off, she could faintly see him trot up the steps and disappear inside. He returned in moments and hung a dimly glowing camping lantern on a porch post beside the three wide, wooden steps.
      He stepped back to the truck, took her luggage out and told her, "Come inside."
      "I thought you were taking me to Catesville," she squeaked. "County road, remember?"
      "Hatchet Creek bridge is out; that means Skeeter Flats, about a mile north, will be flooded. There's no way out until the weather breaks."
      She followed him up the steps, gripping her mud-coated purse straps. Another gas lantern barely lit the interior. She had the impression of furniture hulking in the shadows, and looked around for someone else, anyone else -- wife, kids, parents, anybody.
      Nothing. She was alone with a stranger, trapped by a flood miles from anywhere, with no way to contact the outside world.
      And nobody knew where she was.

* * *

      He put her luggage on the floor, again said, "Wait here," and disappeared, this time toward the back of the house. He must have gone outside because the sound of the rain pounding the roof and the saturated ground grew sharper, louder for a moment, and then muffled again, as though a door had opened and closed.
      Where'd he go? To get a-- a-- an axe? What if he kills me and dismembers me and--
      At the sudden sound of a growling engine of some kind, she jumped and squeaked. Several electrical lights came to life around her.
      It's just a generator. Get a grip! You're getting hysterical. He's not an axe murderer. Probably.
      She was not in a shabby country house, as she'd assumed in the dark. The electric lights revealed that it was a log cabin, a roomy and very upscale one with modern conveniences and a host of creature comforts. A man's domain, no doubt about it. Man-sized furniture upholstered in bold plaid or brown leather sat about the big room. A massive stone fireplace took up most of one wall while a huge, antique armoire stood opposite it. On another wall, a big flat-screen LCD television hung at sitting eye-level.
      The room was comfortably warm; apparently the power had not been out long enough for the cold to seep in ... or else it was heated without electricity. Not with the fireplace, though. It was black inside, not so much as an ember glowing.
      She took her mobile phone from her purse and unlocked the keypad. The display lit up and showed the same thing it had shown in Bristol -- no bars. Unbelievable, though, that almost two hours had passed since she stupidly departed the little cafe.
      Several minutes had passed since he went outside to start the generator. Although he frightened her, being alone in a strange house as the minutes stretched out held its own discomfort. What was he doing out there in the rain? When would he come back inside?

* * *

      With the two portable generators running satisfactorily in their shelter near the back steps, Chris headed to the front of the cabin. The beam of his flashlight didn't do a very good job of cutting through the torrent but he wasn't paying much attention to his path, anyway. At his truck, he pulled a hard-sided container covered with a tarp from behind the seats. His heart thudded painfully as he stepped through ankle-deep puddles, back the way he had come, to slide open the door of a storage building. He stepped inside.
      The rain was deafening on the metal roof but he was oblivious. He removed the tarp and opened the container, a carrier for small to mid-sized dogs, took out a bundle wrapped in towels and held it in his arms like a baby. But this bundle was silent, still and cold. These were same towels he'd wrapped around Gumbo when he'd taken him to the vet that morning--a trip that should have been made months ago.
      Gumbo. He was the best kind of dog there was--a mutt. A wiry-haired, piebald mongrel with a wet black nose, the sweetest brown eyes and a fiercely brave and loyal heart. Gumbo had been Chris's dear and faithful friend for fourteen years; a friend he'd missed as deeply as any human while in Iraq. It had been hard to face the fact that for several months, debilitating arthritis had made the dog's life so painful it wasn't worth living. But he had at last forced himself to take his friend to the vet and have him put down.
      Chris patted the bundle. Tears blinded him and a sob rose from his throat.
      "You'll be safe in here," he murmured. "And when the water goes down, I'll bury you under my window."
      He returned the bundle to the carrier, closed it, and stepped through the rain to the cabin's back steps.

* * *

      Leslie's attention was caught by the armoire standing along a side wall. It looked like an antique, big and dark, with little carving or other decor. She was wondering what might be inside when she heard a door open and close. Footsteps sounded behind her and she whirled around to keep her rescuer in sight as he walked across the room. He carried nothing--no axe, hatchet, machete or knife. He took off the duster and hat, hung them on pegs near the front door and ran a hand through his wet, dark blond hair.
      For the first time, Leslie could see that he was good-looking. Extremely so. The cargo pants and T-shirt he wore were not soaking, but damp enough to cling to his lean, well-muscled body.
      He returned her gaze and she unconsciously clutched the lapels of her raincoat together at her sternum. She must look a sight, hands and shins muddied, hair plastered to her head, streaks of mascara surely running down her face.
      "How's your head?" he asked, his voice and demeanor perfunctory.
      "It's okay. I was scared, not injured." She ran her fingers along her forehead just below her hairline. "I barely bumped it on the steering wheel."
      He looked at her a second longer, as if he wasn't sure whether her assessment could be trusted, took her luggage and stepped to a door next to the armoire.
      "Guest room with bath in here." He walked through the door and reappeared emptyhanded moments later. "After I get cleaned up, I'm going to heat up some beef stew. You can join me, if you're hungry."
      See? What kind of rapist-murderer feeds his victim beforehand?
      "That sounds good. I had a sandwich in Bristol, but it seems to have played out on me." She gave a nervous laugh. "I'm sorry, I've been too frightened to remember my manners. I haven't said thank you, although I do appreciate very much what you've done, Mister...."
      "Dupree. Chris Dupree."
      


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