*This novel is by far the steamiest I wrote other than my erotic reads. Be warned, as the steam level is five, which is the highest steam level romance novel can get. But there's more to this body-feel-good novel. There's plenty of comic relief, and I have a sneaking suspicion you won't be able to figure out who the murderer is.*
 
The death of a woman forces a small rural town to uncover its first murder in more than fifty years. In a town so small, where everyone knows every intimate detail about each other, thanks to the town’s ever-churning gossip mill, it should be easy to find the killer amongst them. Or is it?

From the beginning, rumors of who the murderer is point in one direction. Dr. Tell, a native of New Orleans, and therefore a newcomer to Plain Dealing, is the owner and chief of staff of the hospital where the slain woman worked. And rumor is Dr. Tell’s has an unquenchable dark side. Whispered of having a penchant for preying on the nurses inside his hospital, for most in the town it’s an open and shut case. If this is so, why hasn’t the town’s sheriff made any arrests?

Alison Saunders knows all too well that every rumor spoken inside of the Snack and Eat Diner, which doubles as the town’s gossip headquarters, isn’t true. As a victim of these rumors, she’s had to live her entire life as an unwanted resident. Living alone is what she’s used to, and although she’s hated it seems by everyone, she refuses to imbibe from the well of pity. Determined to make the most of her life, she takes each day as it comes, unaware that deep down inside her lonely heart is pleading for someone – anyone – in Plain Dealing to give her a chance at friendship. This chance finally comes when unusual circumstances pair her with Dr. Tell. As one of his nurses, will she be the town’s next victim?

With the rumor mill grinding at a swift speed, the sheriff and his deputies try and beat the clock to uncover the killer that everyone in town is looking for. Meanwhile, Alison’s new friendship with Dr. Tell unexpectedly sends her spiraling into a sexual lifestyle she never knew existed. After more women are murdered, Alison must ask herself. Is she finally living or is she setting up her own demise?

Plain Dealing is a story about stepping out of a small town caste, learning of one’s independence, building friendships and finding love in those who others around have deemed unlovable. With a fast pace and filled with levity, it’s a book you won’t be able to put down, and when you do you understand just how powerful spoken words truly are.

Read first chapters for free.

One

 

The rain wasn’t falling. Alison Saunders watched, as with the momentum of an enormous wave plunging from the darkness above, the rain peeled over the lip of a cloud and crashed down like a tsunami. As it fell, a fierce derecho blew it in one direction, causing the wave to roll with the power of a sandstorm, immersing everything it could inside its watery grave.

The derecho’s fifty-eight-mile-an-hour winds howled like demons and slammed against the surrounding buildings made of tin, wood, brick and stucco. Alison could feel the hospital’s four stories of glass and steel battling the storm a weatherman predicted would be the worst Northern Louisiana had seen in more than a hundred years. Regardless of the small tremors, strong enough to make the floor feel as if it were collapsing beneath her, she knew the danger behind her was far worse than the weather outside. All she needed was to reach her car.

She could see it. It wasn’t too far away.

She glanced over her shoulder as the black sky outside pulsated from bursts of light similar to electrical circuits with perilous shorts.

Facing forward, Alison grasped the lobby door. The cost of wasting another second was a risk she didn’t want to take.

“Alison?”

The sound of his voice startled her, sending cold fear down her spine. Wind forced the door to close against her. She turned swiftly and saw him standing dark behind her in the dimly lit hall. His silhouette swelled and deflated as one would when out of breath. Knowing he had run to reach her caused her to reach blindly for the door.

The last place she’d seen Dr. Shelton was on the second floor less than four minutes ago. The hospital employed three hundred people. Of those three hundred, it was Dr. Shelton who knew exactly where she was at all times. It seemed to her he was always watching, watching, watching.

Where are you going?’

Slightly over six feet tall and very thin, what little flesh he had was firm. Dark hair buzzed super short, super small eyes peering behind overly large black rimmed glasses, a stout nose, thin upper lip tucked underneath the evening shadow of a mustache and a beard, very pale skin that looked even paler now in the dimness of light. He sauntered closer to her – too close; stopping to position himself slightly behind her, and invading her space so that she felt him, although he hadn’t touched her.

Alison, as best she could without him realizing, glanced down to make sure his hands were still down by his side.

“Have mercy.” His voice was suddenly thick like it always was when they were alone. “You ain’t planning on stepping out in that, are ya?”

His narrowed-eyed gaze slid across the lobby, taking it completely in before turning and settling on her intently. A firm tug was made to her arm. It reeked of authority and suggested retaliation if not obeyed. Instinctively, she attempted to shrug her arm away, but his grip was too strong. He leaned closer, his fingers biting into her arm so tightly that a double-dose of panic caused her to stand rigid. Paralyzed. Afraid. His eyes darkened, and his lips curved downward in each corner in displeasure. “Come now, Alison!”

Gone was his need to be polite. Through clenched teeth he had spoken, his true intentions now forefront. What Alison wanted to know was why her movements through the hospital were an annoyance to him, and what his intentions were at that moment and why.

“Get back upstairs. You’re not leaving.”

A sound very small caused both of them to peer towards the hall.

Alison hoped there was someone there.

A flicker of lightening speared a nearby wall with imagery similar to alien holography. And beside the imagery was a shadow.

Someone was there! In the hall!

The grip released from her arm.

Dr. Shelton stood upright. Both corners of his mouth battled with the smile he was trying to give. The tone of his voice lightened, and was believably upbeat. “A few of us are gathering in the lounge to wait out the storm. Surely you can’t mean to leave just yet. Why would you when Sadie promised to send up a mess of goodies? Everything she couldn’t sell, which includes white coconut cake. I hear it’s your favorite.”

 It was his favorite.

Alison knew why the shadow refused to come closer. Rumor was the life’s blood of the town she lived in. Whoever was there was listening to recant everything he or she heard later on to anyone who would listen.

Rumor was Dr. Shelton ordered coconut cake every day for lunch and on the days there weren’t any he stamped out of the cafeteria refusing to eat. A Harvard grad with an IQ of 180, he had been snatched up by the town of Plain Dealing as its resident ER physician with the promise of a home, a new car and a key to the city. The key didn’t mean much. The town’s population was fewer than eleven hundred. Downtown consisted of a two-lane street bordered by trees on both ends and a handful of ghostly mementos of long ago lucrative shops. Rumor was the sight of it disgusted him the day he arrived.

In Plain Dealing no one read the newspaper. If you wanted to get information you stood on street corners or at the property edge of a neighbor’s yard; wherever there was a small group you simply attached yourself to it. Within minutes you knew who was born, who died, and who spit on West Mary Lee Avenue in front of the Piggly Wiggly at exactly what time and where it landed. The town was one of the smallest in Bossier Parish, and gossip was better than the internet and especially faster. And there was a lot of gossip about Dr. Shelton, the arrogant Yankee who traded in the Ford pickup he’d been gifted for a canary yellow Mustang, which the town’s residents referred to as the bumble bee with no sting. The town’s major complaint was the way he hit on every woman who crossed his path. Age made no difference. Dr. Shelton was a man desperate to score. The dilemma he faced when he approached women was the same as it was in similar small towns. The Plain Dealing women folk were wary of strangers, especially intelligent ones from big cities.

No one liked him, including Alison. There was something about his behavior that seemed to her very odd. And tonight his behavior had been odder than ever. Toward the end of her shift, every time she turned he was there, his eyes fastened on her in a way that no man’s should with respect to a woman who wasn’t his. And in his eyes had been a promise, a promise she hadn’t wanted to give him a chance to fulfill. There was no way she was staying. The hospital had far too many rooms, too many halls, too many doors.

“I gotta get going.”

“Let me walk you to your car at least!”

The door slammed behind her and the wind swallowed up his words.

At five-feet-six-inches tall, she was hit hard by the rain. The wind pushed her in the opposite direction she needed to go. While she struggled against it, her eyes scanned back towards the lobby.

His dark shadow stood inside it, unmoving.

Alison saw this and hurried through the maze of cars until she reached her own. Her ring of keys refused to cooperate. Like a squirming fish, it refused to be gripped. The key finally slid in the door. She climbed behind the steering wheel and slammed the door.

She pulled out of the parking lot before she thought of turning on the wipers. Once they were on she saw that her vision wasn’t any better.

One of her tires refused to find traction and skated over a puddle of water.

She lifted her foot off the gas.

If she could reach Magnolia where more trees lined the roads, her chances of arriving safely at the plantation home she inherited as a teen were favorable. Once there, it was only a few miles more, and then a turn on Mockingbird Lane, and then a tedious drive on the dirt road that led to the isolated acreage she owned.

Thunder crackled and boomed.

A mean jagged bolt of lightning momentarily lit up the horizon.

She glanced at the defrost button and turned it on. It took only a second. She glanced up and saw a black object thump hard on top of her hood, then rolled onto the street. Instinct caused her to slam on the brakes. The car tires slid across inches of water into oncoming traffic. Twin blinding lights exposed her in the darkness.

Boom!

In her haste to get away she hadn’t put on her seatbelt. Her body lifted from the seat and flew forward, hard into the steering wheel. The pressure and force of the car spinning out of control made the car feel like a merry-go-round in warp speed. Outside the windshield, the world was also spinning, and spinning with her was the car she had struck. She heard the squeal of tires drag across asphalt, and then the hard crunch of gravel. A brown arm with a million green fingers reached for her window. The car was in mid-spin when it crashed sideways against the wide trunk of a tree. Her passenger window exploded. The instant halt of the gravitational pull caused her to lean weakly against the door.

As her head leaned back, the smell of fuel and the salt-musty scent of nearby Little Cypress Bayou filled the car.

All Alison saw were many lights. Out of the lights emerged a black figure running in her direction.

Was it Dr. Shelton?

Her door pulled open.

“Are you all right?”

Against her will, she spilled out of the car into the black figure’s arms.

 

Two

 

A howling gust from the derecho separated them momentarily; its wall of wind forcing her and her rescuer to the ground. Still, he held tightly to her arm – a strong grip – running with her towards a Mercedes parked awkwardly in the center of the highway. Within seconds they were inside it; the wind slammed both of their doors shut. The Mercedes hummed to life; its tires found traction. He had no fear of driving in bad weather. The car gradually, then quickly picked up speed. As they passed the accident she noticed that three cars were involved. Hers and the car she had struck were totally smashed. A third, with no clear damage, sat abandoned on the side of the road. Through her rearview mirror she saw an uprooted tree. It lay transverse on the lanes, preventing her rescuer from going back in the direction she’d come. Some of its branches had broken off and now sprinkled the highway. It was one of those branches that had struck her car.

Despite the howl of wind and slashing rain, he spoke in a subdued tone. “Where were you going?”

Alison sensed the question hadn’t been asked out of curiosity, but as a means of giving him some direction.

Alison took him in.

Everyone from Plain Dealing to New Orléans knew the man sitting beside her. Dark blonde hair, aggressive eyes pulled tightly in a squint as he concentrated on the road, well-shaped lips; his self-assurance – which was palpable – in Alison’s mind, overshadowed his handsome features.

“Home,” she finally answered.

He turned to her then, briefly. “You didn’t want to stay where you were?”

“No.”

He gave an apprehensive glance. “Family?”

It was the way he said the word, with abhorrence. It forced her to stare at him longer. He was gazing at her, waiting for an answer.

She shook her head. “Work.”

She saw one of his brows arch in the darkness. “Where do you work?”

She had heard many rumors about him: intelligent, reserved, an irascible temper. These were only a few things she’d heard. What was mostly whispered about him were the things he supposedly did in secret to many women in town. Although the stories varied, one part remained consistent. Dr. Andreus Solomon Tell, the chief of staff and private owner of the hospital where she worked, preferred doing these things to the registered nurses working for him. If the rumors were true, the place he chose to act out his unusual sexual appetite was in his office. Alison tried to relate the rumors to the facial features and physique of the man sitting beside her. 

“St. Vicente,” she finally answered.

A sharp glance was made in her direction as he gave her a comprehensive second appraisal.

“What do you do?”

“I’m a registered nurse on your ortho-neuro unit.”

Another sharp glance, a third appraisal, and then his eyes focused on the road. “You must be the infamous Alison Saunders. I find that very interesting.”

“Why interesting?”

What could have been the beginning of a small smile appeared.

“No one in town is gossiped about more than you are, including me.”

This was true.

“Why interesting?” she asked again.

The small smile altered into intrigue. It showed in his eyes. “If ever I crossed your path I expected nothing less than a black tunic, a scapular and cowl, a cross dangling from your neck and a bible in your hand. Isn’t this the requirement of a nun?”

Her smile was equally small.

“You don’t look like a nun,” he added.

“It’s only a rumor. I was never a nun. I am and have always been an aspiring sinner.”

A definite smile this time.

“I guess Alison Saunders wouldn’t feel safe at St. Vicente or anywhere in Plain Dealing for that matter. Can I ask who at work frightened you bad enough to make you get in a battered up Ford and drive out in a storm?”

She averted her gaze out the window.

Dr. Shelton had sought her out more than usual that day. Sometimes he would smile. Other times he appeared in deep contemplation. When they were told the storm had worsened, and the weatherman warned everyone to stay inside, he’d gotten bold. He stood close to her so that his body brushed hers, and then he leaned forward and whispered in her ear, Does this mean I get to spend the night with thee Alison Saunders? I’ve dreamt of doing just that. Many times. And then he pulled back a little and gave a friendly smile.

A small part of her told her he’d said it jokingly, but another part of her believed otherwise. Had she stayed, Dr. Shelton would have sought her out. She was certain of this. She shuddered to think what he would have done had he found her alone. And she would have been alone. There was no one in town that she could personally label as a friend.

Could she tell him these things? After all, it was Dr. Tell who offered Dr. Shelton the ridiculous bonus package to lure the newly licensed doctor to their small town.

A cell phone housed on the console began to trill.

He pursed his lips tightly in agitation and pressed a button on the steering wheel. He spoke firmly. “What?”

The woman on the other end was the hospital’s director of nurses. Her voice spilled loudly out of every speaker and filled the car’s interior.

“I’m sorry to disturb you.”

Alison assumed this was the precursor for all such calls: the immediate apology.

“Tayler Jordan just arrived,” she continued.

“And that’s important to me because…?”

Tayler Jordan?

Alison glanced at him as she sat up straight. If the stories about Dr. Tell were true, Tayler Ann Jordan was one of the nurses having an affair with him. She supposedly had spent many hours alone with him in his office. It was three days ago after her last visit when she suddenly disappeared. She was scheduled to work that night, but never showed up and didn’t call in. Repeated calls to her house and cell phone went unanswered. One of the nurses had gone to her home, but Tayler never came to the door. Someone had called the police and Deputy Tally was sent out to her house. He broke a window to get inside. He called the hospital later that evening and said that nothing looked disturbed. He didn’t believe there had been any foul play, because a bank receipt for a five-hundred-dollar withdrawal had been left on the kitchen table, and a calendar had the date she had gone missing circled with the words written underneath, I can’t wait.

“Because she was brought in on a stretcher and from the looks of her, she won’t last through the night. Someone did a job on her, and rumors are spreading like wild fire that you had something to do with it because she was found an hour ago inside your home.”

“Impossible.” His tone was low and held an edge of darkness.

Alison leaned against her door, gripping it tightly.

“Nurse Jordan has never been to my home.”

“You should know by now that in this town if it’s said enough, it’s as good as true. Sheriff Lymon is here. He showed up just before Tayler did. He was in the area and wanted out of the rain. He took one look at her, heard what others were whispering. He’s been pulling everyone aside and questioning them at length. The last thing I heard is he thinks you cut out because someone tipped you off that Tayler had been found.”

The Mercedes slid through a wide tree-lined covered passageway behind a wrought iron gate, coasted to the middle of it, stopped and idled.

“How bad is she?”

“Real bad. They’re still working on her. Have been from the moment she came in. I won’t go into all the details, but I will tell you this. Something was shoved down her throat. Dr. Hanks pulled it out. It looked like a small surgical towel – the same kind we used to use here long ago. Her sinus rhythms aren’t stable. I’ll feel better if you came back and saw to her yourself. It’ll show Lymon that you have nothing to hide. Are you coming back?”

“The road’s blocked. Have Dr. Shelton see to her. What did we hire him for if he can’t perform miracles? He worked with some of the biggest names in New York City. Tell him to do all he can. And after you tell him that, go find Lymon and tell him that he knows where to find me if he wants to see me. If he can make it through this, I’ll be here waiting for him.”

He disconnected the line, cut the car’s engine and began to open his door.

Alison reached a hand toward him. He saw this, sat back down and faced her. Anger was visible in his eyes. It was dark, and smoldering, and it frightened her.

While he’d been speaking she realized he’d driven her to his home.

His home wasn’t a regular home. He had the rumor mill going when he bought the abandoned convent out in the middle of nowhere. The convent sat tall and dark a short distance in front of the car. During its renovation some of the townsfolk had propped chairs along the property’s edge to watch with macabre interest as the decomposing religious relic, which they believed was the permanent crypt for the disembodied spirits of the town’s former religious leaders, was transformed into a home for a young doctor to live inside alone. 

Had Tayler been found inside it?

She nearly leapt out of her skin when her cell phone began to vibrate and trill inside her coat pocket.

Dr. Tell snapped on the interior light to make it easier for her to see.

The call was from a restricted number.

She had no family. As far as she knew, no one in town knew her number. The only time she’d given it out was when she listed it in her personal file to be used in cases of emergencies when the hospital needed her to come in and work an extra shift. Until now no one in town had ever called it.

Curiosity got the better of her.

“Hello?”

There was static, but still the voice was recognizable. It was Dr. Shelton.

“Right after you left I saw Dr. Tell get in his car and follow you. I jumped in my car so that I could bring you back. You would have been safer here. Tayler was found, Alison. Tonight. She’s in real bad shape. Someone strangled her, amongst other things, tied her up and left her for dead. There was an accident on the road. Did you see it?”

“I caused it.”

“Are you hurt?”

“No.”

“Where are you? I’ll come get you. You need to stay away from Dr. Tell. Rumor is he had something to do with Tayler. If he did… Tell me where you are.”

“You followed me?”

The road was blocked. She’d seen this for herself. If he had seen the accident it meant he was past the felled tree, which meant he had reached that location around the same time she did.

The third car sitting idle on the side of the road!

She thought three cars had been involved. Now she knew there had only been two. Hers and the car she had struck. Dr. Shelton had been inside the parked third car. As always, he was forever watching.

In the background of his cell she could hear the wind howling. She heard the idling hum of his car’s engine. She turned in her seat and looked through the Mercedes’ rear window. In the distance, not too far from where she sat, were twin headlights. She was still watching them when the lights suddenly went dark. “W-Where are you?”

“Driving the streets looking for you. I can hardly see because of the rain. Where are you?”

Alison remembered something at that moment. Dr. Tell told the DON to have Dr. Shelton see to Tayler. It meant Dr. Tell believed he was still at the hospital.

Had Dr. Shelton even seen Dr. Tell leave the hospital?

Dr. Tell never left the hospital through the lobby. He left through the maintenance department, because his car was parked right outside it, which meant that Dr. Shelton hadn’t seen him leave at all. The only time he could have seen him was on the highway when he had climbed out of his car to go after her. If this were true, what was the real reason Dr. Shelton left the hospital to come after her?

She gazed forward, because Dr. Shelton wasn’t her only problem. She was in the middle of a storm far from home, alone with two men. One of them had dark rumors circulating about him. Dr. Tell was referred to secretly by many as a sexual predator. The affairs – if anyone could call them affairs – were in fact horrid sexual acts that went beyond the area of assault and bordered insanity. Rumor was he liked tying women up before striking them, and that sometimes the women were gagged. 

Were any of the rumors true?

Most of the rumors that had been spread about her weren’t true, but some of the rumors she had heard about others were.

The other man behaved darkly when he was around her.

Regardless of this, whether she wanted to or not, she needed to trust one of the men to take her someplace safe and out of the rain.

Her eyes suddenly narrowed as she leaned back in her seat. If Dr. Shelton had seen the accident, why didn’t he try and rescue her? Why sit in a dark car with its lights off? Was it because he hadn’t wanted to be seen? If the accident hadn’t happened, would he have followed her home? She knew now that he had her cell number. Why not just call and plead with her to go back to the hospital? Was it because he didn’t want her to know he was following? What would have happened once they reached her home? Her home was on the outskirts of town, her house surrounded by an overgrowth of densely set trees.

“Alison?” Dr. Shelton’s voice was a thick, breathy whisper. “I don’t want him to know it’s me, Alison. Get out of the car, Alison. He won’t follow you. Tell him that the person you’re speaking with is nearby and will take you safely home.”

She glanced again through the rear window. The car sat dark and idle, patiently waiting.

“He hurt Tayler.” This time there was a plea in his voice. “I don’t want him to hurt you. You heard the rumors about him just as much as I have. He can’t be trusted. You don’t know what he did to her. Peg just called me. She told me everything. Please, don’t go in that house with him. Tayler was found inside it and right now she’s barely alive.”

Alison looked forward at the house. It was totally dark. If Tayler had been found inside it wouldn’t the police be there now, canvassing the crime scene and collecting evidence?

Her eyes slid over to Dr. Tell.

He wasn’t paying her any attention. He was propped against the steering wheel, watching the storm brewing between the trees, his face a mask of irritation. The hardness of the rain forced its way through the branches above them, bathing his car with water laced with tree leaves. He turned to her then, his eyes beseeching. “It’s not safe out here.”

Thunder crackled. It echoed in the distance in the beat of a demented drummer. And then the sky opened and another tsunami crashed on top of them, dropping stinging pellets of rain at the rate of rounds fired from a semi-automatic rifle. Ting, ting, ting, ting! The heavens then turned up their speakers – very loudly, the sounds of a million angels lamenting in anguish.

Aaa-lison?” Dr. Shelton whispered, pleadingly. He spoke then – deliberately slow. “What are you waiting for, Alison?”

There was a cackle of static and then silence followed by a harsh dun-dun-dun-dun-dun. The call had ended. The phone had lost reception.

She lowered it to her lap. Dr. Tell took this as his cue.

He forcibly grabbed her hand and yanked her over the driver’s seat after him. Both of them hit the ground running with Dr. Tell leading them to the dark, gloomy converted convent at the end of the tree covered passage.

 

Three

 

Sheriff Jelly Lymon was born Earl Ricky Lymon, but no one had called him Earl since he was a child. Six-feet-three-inches tall, he had a waist that measured fifty-eight inches. He weighed just less than four hundred pounds. When he was a kid, the townies had called him Big Earl. He had always been big just like his Mama and daddy. His parents had been proud of the name. To them a fat child meant a healthy child and a healthy child had good parents. By the time he was fourteen his stomach hung over his pants and his daddy started calling him Jelly. The name stuck. And everyone from small towns knew that once a nickname stuck, it followed you to the grave and was written across your epitaph.

He’d seen Little Joe bring in Tayler. He was carrying her in his arms, both of them sopping wet from the rain. As soon as he burst through the ER door he was yelling for help louder than the wind outside. It was plain to see that Tayler’s health was critical and had reached the level of touch and go. How she made the journey through the derecho, Jelly would never know. An hour after working on her, the staff still felt it was a touch and go situation, probably because they knew by then just how severe was her condition. What Jelly found strange was she had been missing for three days.  Where the hell had she been? In a town no more than two miles wide there weren’t many places to hide. With a population of just over a thousand someone had to know something. As soon as the staff started working on her, Jelly decided to use his time wisely while stuck at the hospital because of the storm. He had no choice but to begin his investigation there. 

The first person he questioned was Little Joe. He didn’t get much out of the kid. He was seventeen, and a little soft in the head. All Jelly wanted to know was where the kid had found her, but Little Joe talked nonsense and mostly about the sketti his Mama was making that evening. Talking to Nurse Billie Jean was the same as hitting pay dirt. Tayler was last seen going inside Dr. Tell’s office. From what she remembered, no one had seen Tayler leave it. Tayler had been scheduled to work the graveyard shift that night, but never showed up. Nurse Emma Lee told him that Tayler often visited Dr. Tell’s office, and when she did, Dr. Tell would close the door tightly behind them and then lock it. She also said she knew exactly what Tayler and the doctor were doing during these visits. She began to tell him in detail. When her story turned from strange to flat out deranged, he stopped her with a lift of a hand.

“Hold on now, Emma Lee. Do you hear what it is you’re saying? We’re talking about a fine doctor who employs you and the others round here. Think about this now. I need you to be real honest ’bout this. Are these things you telling me things you saw with your own eyes or what you been told down at the Piggly Wiggly?”

“What’s the difference?”

He slapped Nurse Emma Lee hard on her rear. “Go on now! And don’t be telling another living soul what you jess told me. It’ll make you look bad, Emma Lee!” he called after her as she hurried away from him. “Real bad! I can’t believe what jess came out yo mouth. A woman like you shouldn’t be saying such things. Tell it again and I’ll haul you in.”

The more staff he questioned the more he got of the same story Emma Lee had tried telling him. “Hold on now,” he said this time to Peg Johnson.

Peg wasn’t a nickname; it was the only name she had. No middle name. Johnson had come from her husband’s surname. She had a sister named Meg and a brother named Reg. Her parents definitely had a sense of humor. She was sixty-one years old, the mother of four and grandmother of five. She went to church every Sunday and taught Bible lessons to school age children every Wednesday evening over at the Baptist church. Jelly couldn’t believe that for the past two minutes she was talking about phalluses. That’s what she called it, stressing the ‘f’ sound harshly between her two front teeth. Once when she said the word he feared her tongue would leap out afterwards and attack him, and it nearly did.

“He was ripping that poor girl apart with his fal-liss!”

 “Peg Johnson!”

“…amongst other things!”

Had she been younger he would have given her two hard smacks on the rear. “Did you see him do it?”

Peg got quiet.

Jelly pressed for more information. “Did Tayler at least tell you what you’re now telling me?”

She became energetic, almost as if she were being electrically charged by a current of high voltage. She grabbed tightly at his arm, her fingers trembling because of it, and leaned in real close to him. “Geraldine Cotton told me.”

“Who!”

Anger rose in her eyes. “Geraldine! You know her. Warren’s cousin’s best friend’s nineteen-year-old niece’s mother who was once married to Bing Saffold, who has the sister with the wandering eye.”

“Are you talking about Gerri Bea?”

She gave him a pleasant smile then. “Yes,” she answered, stressing the ‘s’ so that she sounded like a hissing snake.

“Who moved down to Minden a little over a month ago?” Jelly confirmed.

Her smile grew wider as her head bobbed up and down.

Jelly was speechless. He gazed hard at her. “I’m surprised at you, Peg.”

“Me? Whatever for?”

“You had too much fun telling me that story. Hell, after hearing it I’mma have wet dreams for a year!”

Her jaw became unhinged; her eyes grew wide.

“I think after this storm is over you need to head on home, Peg, and have Lou give you something he probably haven’t given you in years.”

“Jelly!”

“Don’t you dare Jelly me!” He was beside himself with outrage. “After what I jess listened to, don’t you dare stand there and act like you’re offended by me mentioning something that’s natural between a husband and a wife.”

Peg propped a knobby fist to her now shapeless hip. “Well then, don’t get offended when I tell you, Jelly Lymon, that as fat as your ass is there ain’t no way yo fal-liss seen any parts of a woman since you hit puberty!”

She turned and stormed away.

“That wasn’t Christian of you, Peg!”

“I’ll pray later!”

Jelly’s lips tightened into a hard cruel line, until the shape of his nose became distorted. “You need to pray right goddamn now!”

One of the nurses leaned over a counter and held an outstretched phone in his direction. “Call for you, Jelly!”

The nurse’s name was Norma Lakes.

He gripped the phone, then began to study her. “What you know about Tayler and Dr. Tell?”

Norma’s eyes grew wide. She pressed both palms of her hands flat on the counter and leaned towards him in a hurry. “I can tell you lots.”

Jelly pressed the earpiece of the phone tight against his protruding belly so the caller couldn’t hear what Norma would say.

“He doesn’t keep medical supplies inside the cabinets and drawers inside his office.”

Her voice had lowered. Norma’s eyes wandered around to make certain no one was close enough to hear what it was she said.

Jelly leaned closer to her to keep it between them. “Keep going.”

“Sex toys! Lots of them. In different sizes. That’s what he keeps inside the cabinets and drawers. And instruments! Of the medical nature. The kinds used in surgeries. He says they come in handy and that he needs them. Said he ain’t like other men. A bed in a bedroom does nothing for him. He likes to hear the women scream. Said it’s what gets him off.”

Jelly’s eyes tightened on her. It was the first time he he’d heard any of this. “What else he tell you?”

Her eyes grew wide again. “He starts things off with a chicken…”

She stopped suddenly.

Jelly thought she would have followed this up with a laugh and a confession that she was joshing with him.

“He brings it in the room…”

“Wait a goddamn minute! Are you telling me things he told you hisself or stuff you done heard over at the Snack and Eat?”

“H-He wouldn’t tell me these things,” she answered defiantly. “Why would he? It would be the same as admitting he’s insane.”

His voice was low and firm. “Walk away, No-mah.”

The way in which he enunciated her name was how everyone in town did.

“Walk away before I come around that counter, throw you over my knee and whip yo ass!”

Norma gave him a look of resignation. She flopped down in her chair and began working on an in-patient application.

Jelly pulled the phone from his belly and held it to his ear. “This is Jelly.”

The call was from one of the nurses in ICU.

“You can come up and see Tayler now.”

 

 Normally he had free rein of the hospital. Tonight would be no different. He stopped at the telemetry unit on the second floor for coffee, because no one in Bossier Parish had better coffee than the telemetry unit. He then rode up to the fourth floor, because no one in Bossier Parish put out a better pastry spread than the oncology-med-surg unit.

He yanked paper towels from a dispenser on the wall and loaded them with slices of homemade pie, cookies and cake, then carried his tasty bounty along with the coffee down to the third floor to the ICU.

“Hey to you, Jelly!” A few of the nurses called out as soon as he wheezed his way out of the elevator. He hated walking. Most days he did all of his town duties from his pickup truck that seconded as his department issued cruiser. He had runners on the street, people he knew and grew up with who would fetch for him any and everything he needed throughout the day.

“Hey.” He wheezed hard, then flopped down in the largest chair behind the nurse’s counter. He shouldn’t have done so much walking. The doctors had it all wrong when they told him to exercise. Walking would someday kill him. This he knew all too well. All he needed was to catch his breath, but first he needed to sample some of the goodies folded inside the coarse white paper.

“What you got for me so far?” He lifted a wedge of lemon meringue pie and finished it in two bites. He smacked his hands together as he chewed with his mouth open in order for him to breathe at the same time.

Nurse Brenda Bell stood a short distance away with the chart she had started on Tayler Jordan. “It ain’t good, I’ll tell you that. She was choked. Her neck is covered in bruises. A small surgical towel was removed from the back of her mouth, which is odd.”

“Why odd?”

The next thing that went inside his mouth was a huge bite of sweet potato and praline pie. A black nurse named Macy Caldwell made it. Jelly often fantasized about making Macy his wife. She could cook – that woman, better than anyone he’d ever known, including his dead Mama, which was saying a lot.

“Because we don’t use them kinds of towels in surgery anymore. We jess like the big cities now. Dr. Tell won’t have it any other way. When necessary, patients are suctioned. It helps prevent the spread of germs and stops infections. As far as I know, surgical towels of that kind haven’t been used in this place for quite a few years.”

“Are some still around?”

“You can look, but don’t know if you’ll find any. I don’t even know where we’d put ’em. Probably in the storage room down by the cafeteria. It may be the first place you’ll want to look. I ain’t never seen none in it, but then again I ain’t never gone in there looking for surgery towels.”

He ate the last of the sweet potato pie and scolded himself for only grabbing one slice.

“It looks like someone tampered with her lady parts, but you didn’t hear that from me and you sure ain’t gonna be able to prove it.”

“Why not?”

“Because someone cleaned her up real good from her breasts down. She’s as clean as a whistle down to her toenails. There’s contusions on her wrists and ankles. Dark ones like I ain’t ever seen. It got the gossips in this place saying she was tied up.”

Jelly knew that Brenda was one of the biggest gossips in town. If the rumor got started, he figured she was the one who started it.

“Her face is what you got to see. We thought we should leave it as it is until you saw her and then we’ll clean it up later. X-rays showed no broken bones. Three days and as bad as she looks the main thing wrong with her is dehydration and blood loss, as far as we can see. And maybe a little brain damage,” she added casually. “The towel in her mouth restricted her breathing. Dr. Hanks thinks her organs were starved of oxygen. She’s in a coma. May never come out of it. But her heart’s still ticking – only barely. I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but a few from housekeeping got a bet going that she won’t make it through the night. I figured what the hell, you know? I can use a few dollars like everyone else round here. I got ten saying she’ll last thirteen hours. What you think? You want in on it? No one has to know. I won’t tell a soul. It ain’t like anyone liked her anyway. She’s from Bear, Delaware. Who from the South can like anyone from a city named Bear? If you ask me, people was calling and going out to her house, not because they cared, but because they wanted to catch her up to something. It would have given them something to talk about down at the Snack and Eat.”

  Jelly pulled a five-dollar bill out of his shirt pocket and sat it on the counter. “I’ll give my time after I take a look at her.”

“You’ll tell me what you really think won’t you, Jelly? I got another ten I can spare. I can surely use the money.”

Jelly winked at her. “All right.” He finished up a huge cookie, then smacked his hands together and stood to his feet. “Who made the cookies?”

“Macy.”

“I’mma marry that gal someday. Let me go in and see Tayler before y’all wash away my evidence. Give me the camera y’all keep round here.”

“Already took Polaroids. Doubles.”

He knew she meant triples. A third set to prove to everyone that this time the gossip she was spreading was true.

“One set for her file. The other for you to take with you to use in your investigation.”

“I’mma need that third set, Brenda. And don’t you try and fight me on that. I can’t have you going around botching this case. And don’t think I won’t know if you hold a few back, cause I will.”

 

He stood over the bed.

There were three things he noticed right away. The first was the wound on her forehead. It had been done with a knife, a grotesquely deep slice starting at one side of her hairline and ending at the other. The blood from it had dripped in her eyes. Jagged trails of the dried blood resembled lakes and streams down her face and were unmarred by her short jot through the rain. It was almost as if she were wearing a frightening mask. The second thing he noticed were the bruises on her neck. Some were very dark. These bruises he knew were most recent. Others had a yellowish hue in the center and were healing. The position of the bruises reminded him of something he’d read on the internet: asphyxiation at the onset of climax. A man then, he thought. If this was the case, it meant some of the gossip floating around downstairs about what she and Dr. Tell had been up to inside his office could have been true.

During his interviews he asked one group one simple question. “Did Tayler tell you these things herself?” They all just stared at each other, waiting for one of them to say she had. In the end there was only silence. And he had left them with that silence to contemplate on it.

The third thing is what disturbed him most. The blood pattern on her face was downward. It meant the entire time that she bled, her face was in an upright position. This was further proven when he checked her wrists. There were deep indentations around her wrists where something had been tied tight around them. There was also heavy bruising just below her thumbs. If he had to guess, sometime after she was cut she had gone unconscious. Her hands turned inward with her thumbs pointed towards her body. The weight of her body caused more pressure from whatever was used to bind her. Had she simply been tied her body would have fallen to the floor or wherever she was after she’d gone unconscious, and then the blood pattern would have shifted. The face, her wrists; Jelly was certain that she had been suspended in the air before she was attacked, and was left suspended long after the attack was over.

One of the rumors he heard down below was that Dr. Tell loved tying up the women he was sexually involved with, sometimes suspending them in the air.

Jelly put on a pair of latex gloves, pulled back the sheets, then spread Tayler’s thighs apart. A strong scent of soap lifted from her body, overpowering the hospital smells around him. The soap had a strange familiar scent mingled in with it. Jelly leaned closer and took a long sniff. He wasn’t certain, but the peculiar odor to him smelled similar to bleach.

Jelly examined the wound on her forehead again. The skin in some of the areas around it had already begun to heal. Being from a small town where home remedies were more relied on than modern medicine, he’d seen his share of accidental and intentional knife wounds. From the looks of the wound, along with what he was feeling inside his gut other than Macy’s sweet potato pie, it was perhaps three days old. He found this bit of information very important. Two people from ER had seen Tayler going inside Dr. Tell’s office three days ago. Neither of them saw her come out of it, although they had no shame telling him that they had purposely waited to see her do just that.

Something wasn’t adding up.

If the wound had been suffered inside Dr. Tell’s office, there was no way Taylor could have walked out of it afterwards. The loss of blood would have blinded her; along with the weakness she would have been feeling. His best bet was if she had tried walking, she would have been stumbling. Someone would have noticed that. The first thing any victims did, especially when they feared for their lives, was yell for help. Cries of panic would have drawn attention, especially inside a hospital. The only plausible way she could have left his office in that condition was if Dr. Tell had carried her out of it.

Something still wasn’t adding up.

No attempt to clean the blood from her face had been made. Her attacker, regardless how experienced he was in committing crimes, would have done that before moving her. Tayler hadn’t been found in the hospital, but somewhere else. From his experience, assaults of this nature, where the attacker allowed his victim to bleed freely, usually took place in a place of comfort. And that place was usually a home.

He stood upright.

What have I got?

Three days. And during those three days her attacker had kept the rest of her body exceptionally clean.

He glanced over his shoulder to make sure Brenda wasn’t watching him. He did what he did next very quickly. He pulled her thighs further apart and studied her sex. There was evidence left behind that Dr. Hanks had performed a rape test on her. There was no visible bruising or cuts. The hair had been neatly shaven to a narrow strip. Where the hair had been shaved away it was beginning to grow out again.

He slid a gloved finger inside her, surprised at how tightly her insides gripped his finger. This wasn’t about rape.

Then what was it about? Why had Tayler been singled out?

He spent a little over an hour going over every inch of her body. There were no bruises anywhere else. No breakage of the skin. Nothing.

Why cut someone like they did then leave her to hang?

The sum’ma bitch was torturing you, wasn’t he?

But how? No bruising. No signs of sexual contact.

Instinct caused Jelly to pry Tayler’s lips apart. His fingers trembled slightly when he saw what he did. No wonder a towel had been pulled from her mouth.

He picked up the phone beside the bed and called downstairs. “Get me Little Joe.”

Little Joe was on the line within seconds.

“Where did you find her?”

“Who?”

“Tayler.”

“At home.”

“Your home?”

“Me?”

“Yeah.”

“No.”

“Where?”

“What?”

“Tayler.”

“Jordan?”

“Yeah.”

“Is she home?”

“Was she?”

“Who?”

“Tayler.”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah?”

“My Mama needed to make sketti. Told me to go run over to Luke Bergen’s house cause it was storming, but she needed a little drop of oil and she didn’t want to drive. Luke wasn’t home and Mama needed oil so I ran through the rain over to Tayler’s, opened her door and walked in. Don’t see nothing. Don’t hear nothing. All her lights were off. I went in the kitchen, grabbed the oil. I yell, ‘Got some of yo oil, Tayler – Mama’ll give it back next week when she gets her check.’ She usually yell from somewhere in the house, ‘That’s okay, jess keep it.’ But she don’t say nothing. So I take the oil and turn around and I feel funny.”

“Funny like how?”

“Not like laughing. It’s raining hard. Real hard. It’s scaring me a little. I start walking through the house. Didn’t see nothing.”

“Did you turn on the lights?”

“Yeah. I’m scared of the dark, Jelly.”

“What happened next?”

“Mama say don’t go in a woman’s boudoir cause if a boy like me did they’ll tell folks I did bad things to ’em. But I knew something was wrong. Tayler is nice – real nice to me. Always has been. I’m scared Mama gone find out, but still I push open her boudoir door.”

“What did you see?”

“Nuttin. Her closet door was closed. I walked to it, opened it, turned on its light. There she was in the back of it hanging from the clothes bars against the wall. I thought she dead. Still I say, ‘Hang on Tayler.’ I run to the kitchen, grab a knife, cut her down and carried her to her car in the gee-raj. Went back for the keys and drove her here. Mama showed me how to drive when I was twelve years old.”

“You did good.”

“About what?”

“Everything.”

“Really, Jelly?”

Jelly knew the kid was smiling on the other end.

“Wait till I tell Mama. Maybe she won’t be too mad at me for not bringing the oil. She can’t make sketti without a little oil, you know? I think Mama is powerfully hungry right now.”

Jelly hung up the phone, his eyes tight on Tayler. She had an IV, oxygen, and machines beeping around her. He called again down below, this time to the DON. She answered right away. “I want you to fax it to me later, but right now I want you to tell me what Dr. Tell’s work schedule’s been like for the past two weeks – particularly the past three days.”

“I can tell you that easily. Me and at least fifty others. He comes in at five every morning. He’s never late. He leaves late at night. Monday through Sunday of every week since this place opened. He takes one weekend off a month. If you ask anyone from housekeeping to the chief of finance, they’ll tell you they saw him here at all hours during the past three days.”

“He hasn’t missed any days in the past few days?”

“He hasn’t missed any scheduled work days in nearly seven years. Dinner is sent up to his office every evening round six. He calls down himself and orders off the menu. Talks to Sadie directly. She carries the food up to him, except for last night. He and I went out for drinks and dinner over at the Snack and Eat. We had something we wanted to talk about away from the hospital. Katy and any of the others will tell you that we didn’t leave till around eleven. The night before that I’m told he stayed here until close to ten.”

“The night before that?”

“Helped out in ER. Dr. Shelton left early that day. Some time round three in the afternoon.”

“Dr. Shelton missed any days in the past two weeks?”

“Let me check.”

Jelly could hear her tapping against her keyboard.

“Just that day. Unlike Dr. Tell, he’s required to punch in and out on the clock. He punched out around four and then he punched back in later that evening at seven minutes after six. Rumor is he had a date that evening, but was stood up. I guess he had nothing better to do so he just came back to work. Since Dr. Tell was covering for him he was sent up to med-surg.”

At the desk he grabbed his five bucks. “I want to know when she wakes up. Call me.”

“What about the bet?”

He stopped walking and pondered a few minutes. “Anybody put money on her making it?”

“A few.”

A look came over his face that Brenda couldn’t read.

“Call me as soon as she’s showing any sign of activity. I cain’t wait to hear everything this sum’ma bitch done to her.”

For the first time in a long time Jelly saw anger well up in Brenda’s eyes.

“You know who did this!” The snarl she made showed clenched teeth. “Everybody here knows he did it. No decent man get up to what he gets up to inside that office of his – the one where he keeps the door constantly locked. You need to go and arrest Dr. Tell! Tayler was found inside his house!”

“Was it you that started that rumor?”

“No! I heard it at the same time she was brought up. Everyone is saying it.”

“It ain’t true.”

He walked away.

Brenda leaned over the counter to make sure he was gone. As soon as the elevator closed, she grabbed the phone and called down below. “Jelly jess left. Hey, anyone put money on Tayler making it? No? Save that spot for me. I got ten mo’ dollars. I’m coming down.”

 

Four

 

The first thing most people did returning home when it was dark was turn on the light as soon as they stepped through the front door. Dr. Tell didn’t do this. His hand held firmly to hers, pulling her further into his home. The darkness was so acute Alison couldn’t see him, not even his silhouette.

He gave a soft squeeze to her hand as he led her through dense blackness towards the home’s rear. Like him, Alison knew every turn and twist of the home, because she had resided in it for eleven years as a child. Back when she lived between its walls the convent was the home for the Sisters of the Incarnate Faith of St. Bernardine. Her aunt had been one of the nuns in its order.

No one needed to tell her that he was leading her to the kitchen. When they reached it, only then did he turn on the light, a sharp one that lit up the room as brightly as an operating theater.

Alison couldn’t believe her eyes.

The original wood cabinets and the wooden staircase in the corner that led to the second floor, and were constructed when the convent was first built in 1847, were still intact. The wood, now cared for, was clean and immaculate. When she lived here the kitchen had been old and outdated, its walls white. Now the walls were dollar-bill green. An unusual color, but seemed to go well with the stainless steel appliances. A large painting monopolized the wall in front of an elegant dark wood dining room table. The painting was of a black man playing an accordion while wearing red trousers. In the background was the word ‘zydeco.’

From the corner of her eye she watched as Dr. Tell left the room briefly and returned with a black doctor’s bag. He took off his coat and suit jacket, laying them on the chair nearest him, and then tugged at his tie, loosening it. “You’re looking at the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, one of the most prolific artists I’ve ever come across.”

A large island with a smooth granite top sat in the middle of the floor. On one side of it were barstools made of stainless steel.

Alison stared at the barstools, the clock on the wall.

“Do have a seat. You need to get off of your feet.”

The need to sit was suddenly urgent. Still she stayed where she was.

“Are you all right?”

She turned to him. “Everything looks different now. I guess I thought after I left here I would never come back.”

He nodded, because he understood.

Like everyone else, whether you wanted to listen to gossip or not, it found you in Plain Dealing. It didn’t matter where you were. The town had one grocery store, one post office, one public high school, one public middle school and one public elementary. Its residents were forced to spend all the time outside their home together. And when they were together everyone’s tongues let loose. You heard who was having an affair, and with whom, where the affair took place, the look on the couple’s face when they were caught, and the scrambling race the couple made to flee embarrassment. Children were a hot topic. It was common to hear whose son got a good hiding the night before for sneaking inside his daddy’s chewing tobacco or whose daughter had just become a woman because she had gotten her first period. Intimate details. This is what Alison hated most about the gossip. Some of the women in town held nothing back, no matter how personal the rumor. These women, who thrived on the rumors, met every afternoon at the Snack and Eat Diner. Have you heard the latest news is how they began every conversation. Rumor was Dr. Tell ate at the diner quite frequently. Because of her background, and what had happened to her as a child, she knew he had heard just as much about her as she had of him.

“I need to check you out. It would be better if you were sitting.”

She sat on one of the barstools.

He came and stood close – very close. She could smell his cologne and a hint of tobacco.

“Take off your coat.”

The tone of his voice was of a man who was used to his every word being obeyed.

She took it off and placed it on the barstool beside her. Tayler Jordan.

Plain Dealing wasn’t a city that bordered both sides of the interstate. It was a small town out in nowhere. No one came to it unintentionally. To find it you had to know where you were going. Someone in town had hurt Tayler, someone she saw from time to time.

Was it him?

Her eyes wandered toward the door of the kitchen.

What had been inside the front part of the house that he hadn’t wanted her to see?

“Lift both arms.”

 She attempted to raise both arms above her head. Her right arm lifted high; the left pulled tightly into her chest of its own accord. She doubled over. Up until that moment she hadn’t felt any pain.

He held her gaze, intently; his lower lip was held taut as his eyes narrowed. “Take your shirt off, Alison.”

It was unbelievable how much pain she was now in. Her entire left side felt bruised and stiff. Alison was waiting for the pain to subside; it was taking too long. She closed her eyes and parted her lips in order to breathe easier.

He stepped closer. Against her will her forehead rested against his chest. With careful hands, he lifted her blouse over her head. Both of his palms slid over her breasts then up to her collarbone and neck, his fingers leading the way and pressing into her skin. Her head was turned from one side to the other. “Resist me.”

Each time he pushed she tried pushing against him, except her efforts were weak. Finally she gave up and allowed her body to fall slowly forward. What’s happening to me?

His arms wound around her and held her to him. Her eyes tried to focus on the shine of the nearby stove.

“Stay with me, Alison.”

It was spoken almost in a whisper.

Stay with me, Alison. The words repeated in her mind. No one had ever spoken to her with such gentility in the past. 

A stethoscope was pulled out of the leather bag. The chill in the room caused goose pimples to form on her arms.

A loud clap of thunder sounded outside one of the windows. It rolled and boomed and was followed by the sound of more rain.

“It’s not letting up out there,” he said. “I hear you live out by Cemetery Road. An area that low surely by now is flooded.”

Warm hands unhooked her bra. Alison’s eyes slid downward. The bra had fallen away from her body, exposing the fullness of her breasts. The diaphragm of the stethoscope was ice cold. She watched in horror as the skin of her aureoles tightened, causing the aureoles to shrink in size until they were hard sharp points. Alison’s eyelids lifted slyly at Dr. Tell. Both of his eyes were tightly closed as he listened to the beating of her heart.

The diaphragm slid underneath the weight of her left breast and dug deeper, and then the diaphragm dropped and her wrist was lifted, his fingers pressing firmly against the artery that ran in line with her thumb. His eyes were no longer closed, but focused on the clock behind the stove.

There was a moment when his eyes gave a quick reaction, then slid in her direction and zoomed in on her eyes in deep thought. Suddenly she was gripped on both sides of her face and her forehead pulled roughly against his chest; his fingers slid through her hair, feeling every inch of her scalp for abrasions.

Again he reached inside the leather bag. This time a pen-light was pulled out. It was held close to her eyeballs as he peered deep into them. He was still peering as he spoke. “The rumor is you have no family. Even if the rain stops I can’t let you go home. Not alone.”

The light pulled from her eyes and was held close to her mouth. “Open.”

Her mouth opened, slightly.

Alison felt like an errant child when his thumb tugged her chin downward and his head lowered as the penlight scanned the back of her throat.

It pulled away.

A small bottle was pulled from the bag. A pill was shaken into his palm. He grabbed a glass, filled it with water. “Take this.”

A roar of thunder echoed off of the roof.

The lights in the kitchen flickered, then brightened to a thousand watts.

Alison gazed at the pill he was holding, and then she took him fully in as best as she could. “We know why I left the hospital. Why did you? What made you drive out in the middle of a storm?”

“Why do you think I brought you to my home, Alison?”

“I don’t know.” Her voice was close to a whisper. All she wanted was the pain to go away.

He smiled kindly at her. “It’s a little too late to ask that question now, don’t you think?”

She found his gaze and held it. “Is it?”

She watched as he set the pill on the counter in front of her very slowly, and then the glass.

“Why did you drive out in a storm?” she pressed. “What was so important?”

It could have been a small noise, or movement; she didn’t know which. Whatever it was, it quickly got her attention. Her gaze shifted toward the kitchen door. A woman was standing inside it; she was watching their every move. Alison had never seen the woman in town before. She was of an indiscernible age, but if Alison had to guess, perhaps older than Dr. Tell by quite a few years. A well-shaped mouth and piercing blue eyes; she had shoulder length hair coifed loosely with a hint of curls. Her neck was long and slender, her skin the perfectly tanned shade of an almond. It was what she was wearing that made Alison’s cheeks grow warm. A see-through lace brassiere, the cloth so thin that the woman’s small chocolate tinted nipples were clearly visible. The panties she wore were über small and matched the bra. A black garter was worn over them. Its belt was attached to thigh high silk stockings. On her feet were a pair of killer high-heeled shoes.

Alison believed she was looking at what the nuns of the Incarnate Faith of St. Bernadine would call a prostitute. She wasn’t aware that Plain Dealing had any. Perhaps the woman was from a neighboring town. If she were, it explained why Alison had never seen her before.

It was then that Dr. Tell noticed the woman. The transformation that took place in his eyes caused Alison to become alarmed; she was unable to take her eyes off of him.

The woman’s voice was soft.

“Andreus?”

“Did I give you permission to speak!”

Alison startled. The harshness of his bark had taken her by surprise. The stool underneath her became unbalanced. It and she began to fall to the floor. He caught her just in time. The stool capsized to the floor. The sound it made was minimal against the backdrop of rain. The woman saw his arms around her. It happened very quickly. Her eyes narrowed into angry slits. She tore through the room at an alarming speed. Alison tried to brace herself for the attack. One of Dr. Tell’s arms pushed her roughly to the side. Alison’s hands braced the edges of the island to prevent from falling. In one fluid movement, the leather belt he wore was stripped from his pants, was doubled in his fist and held high ready to strike. The woman saw this and nearly stumbled in her attempt to stop running. The look on her face turned from rage to heart seizing fear. As quickly as she had come into the room, she fled. Seconds later Alison heard footsteps heading up the stairs.

The woman had been in the living room. It was what he hadn’t wanted me to see.

Alison was certain of it. She knew the stairs inside this home all too well. Even if you attempted to climb them quietly, the wood would creak miserably under the minimalist amount of weight. She hadn’t heard anyone coming down the stairs before she saw the woman. If the woman had been upstairs she would have.

Why try and hide this woman from her? More importantly, what was the relationship between them? Alison had been stunned by the way the woman had responded. Any woman in a relationship would have said something, argued. There had been something strange about the woman’s behavior, especially after she’d seen the belt. It was almost as if she had revered him and the threat he posed, as a slave would its master. This was the best way Alison could describe it.

 Dr. Tell was still gazing in the woman’s direction when he announced, “Whether you like it or not, you’re sleeping with me tonight.”

What was the night turning into? From the moment she left the hospital she had been faced with decisions of choosing one path against another. Had it been better if she had gotten out of his car and taken her chances with Dr. Shelton? Then the decision had seemed simple. Now she wondered if she had decided wisely. There was no doubt in her mind that the woman would cause her harm if given the chance.

Whatever doubts she had were abated when the belt was laid on top of the counter, and her shirt was lifted and draped over her shoulders so that her breasts were once again covered. “In spite of what you may have heard about me, I know exactly how this night will end, Alison. Do you?”

She shook her head.

“You should, Alison, because you’re the one in control of it.”

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