A Marked Man
When Max Savage opens his practice in a remote town, he hopes it's the start of a new life. He's got his reputation as a skilled surgeon, his two brothers by his side and a fresh chance. But soon Max discovers he can't escape a past riddled with accusations of murder or the faces of two dead women. Especially since another woman is missing, and he was the last to see her alive.
Annie Duhon knows all about nightmares that shatter life's dreams and the need to escape the past. But her fascination with Max grows, even when disturbing rumours start to surface, and her darkest visions seem to play out in living colour. Can she trust Max with her secrets and her deepest desires? Or is he the spectre she sees when she sleeps – a killer stalking women with his cleansing fire? Is she about to become his next victim?
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About the Author
Stella lives in Washington state.
Read an Excerpt
The moon was a thin white wafer with a big bite missing.
Walking silent streets at nightalonecould be a bad idea. Staying in bed, half awake, half asleep, sweat stinging your eyes, sticking hair to your face, while the monster panic ate you up could be a whole lot worse idea. Nothing bad ever happened around here anyway.
Annie Duhon moved quietly through the town square in Toussaint, Louisiana. That violated moon, coy behind riffles of soft gray cloud, pointed a pale finger at the wide road lined with sycamores, stroked a shine on the windows of businesses and homes on either side.
A warm breeze felt friendly. Yesterday there had been a sidewalk sale and food fair. Holiday lights strung between trees on a triangle of grass in the center of the street were turned on at dusk; they were still on and bobbled, out of place for the time of year, but festive and comforting briefly.
She ought to know better than be lulled by a few strands of quivering colored lights. She ought to turn back and lock herself inside her apartment over Hungry Eyes, the book shop and café run by the Gables, Toussaint's only lawyer and his wife. They lived next door and she had an open invitation, almost an order to go to them at any time if she needed help.
Help, I had another bad dream. They've been happening for more than a couple of weeks and they get worse all the time. Someone dies but I don't know who. It's a woman. Could be me.
Sure she would tell them that, and what could they do about it?
A battered pickup clanked by and made a left turn at the next corner. When Annie reached the spot and looked for the vehicle, she saw it pull into the forecourt of Murphy's Bar where a neon sign blinked on and off behind a grimy window. The small hours of the morning and some folks were still looking for company.
Annie kept walking. She had been here for seven months and felt happier than she had in years, until the nights came when she could not shut out terrible visions of death.
Ten minutes got her to St. Cécil's church, glowing white in the darkness, Bayou Teche a faintly polished presence behind the church and the rectory on the other side of Bonanza Alley.
The bayou drew her, always had. She slipped past the church, reached the towpath and stood awhile, her thin cotton skirt caught to her thighs by warm currents of air.
A slap and suck sound, subtle, inexorable, reminded her how the bayou water kissed its banks on a night like this. Something swam, plopped, beat up a spray. A bass, maybe, or an alligator, or even a big rat. Rats reminded Annie of things she wanted to forget. She walked a few more steps and stopped. Noises swelled, pushed at her. Frogs grumbling, little critters skittering through the underbrush, a buzz in her ears, growing louder.
Annie turned around abruptly and retraced her steps. The breeze became a sudden wind, whipping leaves against her bare legs. A bird cried and she jumped, walked faster.
On Bonanza Alley again, she looked at the rectory. A subdued light shone in the big kitchen at the back but she knew Father Cyrus Payne always kept a light on in case a stranger happened by and needed a little welcome. That good man would be sleeping now.
There were not many good men like him.
Heat rose in her face and her cheeks throbbed. Speeding her pace only made the noises around her head louder. Low lights gleamed steadily behind the stained glass windows of the church. Annie stood still again and willed her heart to be quiet.
Slowly, she pushed open a gate in the white fence surrounding the churchyard. She stepped inside and walked along a path between tombs to a side door into St Cécil's. Annie wasn't a churchgoer, hadn't been since she was a teenager. She gritted her teeth, climbed the steps into a small vestibule and turned the door handle, never expecting it to open. It did and she went inside. Church used to be real important to her, until she offended and the holy congregation suggested she shouldn't be there.
Her mama had suffered even more than she had over that.
A wrought iron gate closed off a side chapel. Annie threaded her fingers through the scrollwork and peered into the candlelit cell beyond. Those candle flames glittered on gold thread in an embroidered hanging behind the little altar. She smelled incense, and old roses, their bruised heads hanging from frail, bent necks around the rim of a glass vase.
The roses reminded her of funeral flowers kept too long because when they were thrown out, the loss would feel more final. Death was final but while the tributes remained, before the false cheer of a life's "celebration" died away and the sympathizers stopped coming around anymore, well then, the grieving ones could try to keep truth at bay.
Nights when she gave up on sleep brought images so clear they seemed real. She didn't want them, or the thoughts that came with them.
Inside the chapel with the gates closed behind her, Annie sat on the cushioned seat of a bench, its high back carved into a frieze of wild animals and birds. She put her head in her hands. What would she do, what could she do? Push on, exhausted by frequent nights filled with ghastly images followed by occasional recurring flashes of the same sick dramas when she was awake? Yes, she guessed that was what she would do, and she would pray for the burden to be taken away.
She did not want to go home until morning. St. Cécil's felt safer. Evil knew better than to enter God's house.
Minutes passed and her head felt heavy. If she went to the rectory, Father Cyrus would take her in, she knew he would. He'd make her stay and want to listen to what troubled her.
Talking about her imagination wasn't worth taking sleep from a busy man at this hour. And talking about the reality that haunted her from other times and places was out of the questionwith Father Cyrus or anyone else.
Annie had come to Toussaint to take over a new position as general manager at Pappy's Dance Hall and Eats just north of town. Since she'd first visited the place while she was back in school and planning a fresh direction for her life, Annie dreamed of owning something like Pappy's one day. She'd never expected the dream to come true and working there felt unreal and wonderful.
Another unexpected surprise had been meeting Dr. Max Savage and falling into an unlikely friendship with him. He often stopped by Pappy's after the lunch rush. Sitting with him while he ate had become a habit. His idea, not hers, but she probably looked forward to seeing him more than she ought to.
Max and his brothers, Roche and Kelly, planned to open a clinic in the area. Roche was also a doctor, and Kelly took care of business matters. There would be more doctors on the staff by the time they opened. Max persuaded her to go out a couple of times and said he wanted her to consider him a friend. She wanted to, but the last time she accepted an offer like his well, the outcome hadn't been good. She surely didn't want Max to find out about either her past or her present troubles.
She and Max couldn't be more different, he a highly regarded facial reconstructive plastic surgeon while Annie came from poor beginnings and had clawed for each handhold on the way to a modest, mostly trade education. Not that she wasn't proud of what she had accomplished.
Truth was, she intended to remain in Toussaint and make already successful Pappy's into a destination people came from all over to visit. She would get accustomed to being alone and whatever happened, she wouldn't be falling back on her family in Pointe Judah, not so far from Toussaint. She loved them but didn't need them, or anyone, to survive anymore.
She yawned and before her staring eyes, the candle flames blurred. Still watching the light, Annie lay on her side on top of the cushioned seat and pulled up her legs. There was no reason not to stay, just until it started to get light.
He trained the flashlight ahead and she couldn't see his face behind the yellow-white beam. The beam bounced and jerked. She heard the sound of something dragging over leaves and sticks, rocks and sharp, scaly pinecones. Another noise, a clank-clank of metal on the stones was there just as it had been each time the man had come.
She heard him breathing, short, harsh breaths. But she also heard the sounds she made herself, a high little wheeze because she was so scared, her throat wouldn't work properly.
What if he heard her?
She knew what he dragged behind him. Her eyes burned. They burned every time. Too many times.
He dropped his burden and walked forward, his flashlight trained on a thick carpet of leaves.
Rain began to fall. It splattered the leaves on the ground, turned them shiny so she saw them clearly, distinct one from another.
Overhead, branches rattled together and wind whined. If he looked up he'd see her. She was right there.
A scent swept at her nostrils. Coppery, like blood. And burned hair: there was no mistaking that, not when you'd smelled it so close before.
The man said, "Here we go," as if he was with his children and he'd just found the ice-cream shop they'd all been looking for. More clattering and he poked through the leaves and mulch with the shining point of a brand-new shovel.
A woman's body lay on the ground beside him, her eyelids burned off, and empty dark holes where her eyes had been. Her hair, nothing but a thin matted spongelike layer, shed filaments in the wind.
"Here we go," the man said again. He didn't start digging a hole but cleared debris from an area no more than two feet across. Poking and scraping quickly brought his satisfied sigh and he lifted the woman as if she weighed nothing. Rags of blackened clothing stuck to her rigid body.
"There we go," the man said and dropped the corpse, headfirst into a hole that swallowed her.
Annie, her hands outstretched before her, ran at the man. "Bring her back. Give her back," she cried. But when she reached for him he turned into fire, and she cried out in pain.
Her forehead struck the side of the altar. She fell to her knees, her arms upraised, and felt her left hand scorch. At the same moment she heard the sound of flame shooting along filaments.
She opened heavy eyes and saw a movement. On the far aisle of the church, she thought. A hooded figure. "No," she murmured. There was no one there.
Then she was wide-awake, pulling herself to her feet, righting the candle she'd knocked over and using one end of a linen runner with silk fringes to beat sizzling threads cold. Immediately she ran to the sacristy and poured water over her hands and into the sink there. She held them under the cold water and realized she had been lucky to sustain little injury. No one need find out what had happened.
The pain ebbed. She found a first-aid kit and wound a bandage around her left hand to keep the air from hurting the wound. Returning to the chapel, she took the runner from the top of the altar and used it to clean black residue from the marble.
She would pay for another runner to be made. "Don't jump," a man said behind her. Annie screamed. She screamed and shook her head, and staggered backward against him. Sweat stuck her clothes to her body. That woman she had seen in the nightmares was her, Annie. Premonitions, not nightmares. They were coming true. The gagging sounds she heard were her own.
"Annie, it's me, Father Cyrus. People are lookin' for you."