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,
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
Romantic suspense with a touch of
mad-scientist sci-fi and a whiff of the
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
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?
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
"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
* * *
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
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
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.
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
"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."
"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
"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
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
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
"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
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
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."