Authors: Lisa Clark O'Neill
Rose Mayhew was personally acquainted with the devil, and his name was Declan Murphy. She’d suspected as much from the time she was two years old – an angelic cherub of a toddler with platinum wisps of curls that rivaled the gossamer of angel wings – and caught the stench of brimstone emanating from her best friend Kathleen’s new baby brother. His identical twin, Rogan, had lain still and adorable as her most-favorite baby doll when she’d touched a tentative finger to his downy cheek, but Declan had howled like all the hounds of Hell and immediately began reeking of sulfur.
In retrospect, it was probable that had merely been a bowel movement, but given what she knew of him now she preferred to recollect it as an omen.
Nothing good would ever come from that boy.
Any proof she needed of his iniquity was standing before her now, dirty-faced and grinning wickedly as he taunted her with a serpent.
“You get that snake away from me, Declan Fitzgerald Murphy!” Sadie hoped that her use of his full name might have
a similar impact on his wicked behavior as when it came from his mother, but apparently she lacked the authoritative tone necessary for the effecting of shame-faced piety. In fact, there was an embarrassing note of desperation in her voice for which she compensated by crossing her arms.
Declan merely grinned wider, thrusting the wriggling green creature her direction.
“It’s just a snake,” he said mildly, trying to swallow his expression of delight. The one deep blue eye that wasn’t covered by his messy hair – a sort of deep brown streaked with red that his mother affectionately called “chestnut” – fluttered in a series of blinks that was probably supposed to convey innocence.
He was rotten to his black little soul. Declan had her backed against the old live oak in her grandmother’s backyard – Sadie had lived with her Granny since she was an infant – and the low-hanging branches which swooped to the ground on either side of her, like the gnarled fingers of some ancient tree spirit, proved an effective barricade for blocking any escape attempts. Her eyes, pure and cerulean as the sky which stretched over the creek and acres of chartreuse marshland undulating behind them, fixed helplessly on the nasty little reptile.
The snake, that is. Not Declan. Its forked tongue darted out and flickered like it wanted to taste her, sending Sadie into a paroxysm of disgust. All their lives he’d known just what buttons to push to send her into fits of either terror or embarrassment, or sometimes a humiliating combination of both. Like the time he’d caught Sadie and Kathleen trying on Kathleen’s older sister’s bra, whooped loudly about them having “boob envy,” and then ran off to tell all of the neighborhood boys, of which he was the evil and undisputed ring leader. There’d been knowing looks and poorly concealed snickers and taunting remarks about her “swollen mosquito bites,” and even a horrifying nickname that it had taken months to make go away: “C.D.”
Short for Carpenter’s Dream. The old classic “flat as a board and never been nailed.”
Sadie wished she’d been cool and composed enough to point out their lack of originality, not to mention the fact that at twelve years old she could hardly expect to be either experienced or voluptuous. But ten year old boys weren’t exactly known for their common sense, or for their originality. They still thought that limericks about bodily functions were the funniest thing anyone had ever heard, and that cornering their neighbors with potentially lethal reptiles constituted a Good Plan.
Sadie glowered at her tormentor, because it was either that or cry over her proximity to the snake, and he did a sort of awkward little dance. She supposed his maneuvering was intended to mimic the snake’s slithering, which he knew from experience gave her the screaming meemies. But in reality it made him look like the idiot he was and she felt her flagging courage rally. This boy – who’d been like her own personal crown of thorns ever since that first incident beside his bassinet (she’d been reprimanded by her grandmother for “messing with the baby and making him fuss”) – deserved to be taken down a peg or two. He couldn’t bully her if she didn’t allow it. They’d been learning about some president or dignitary or… something at school, just before vacation, who’d been made famous for a quote about fearing nothing but fear itself, and so she decided to adopt that laudable attitude.
Of course, he’d probably never been eyeball to eyeball with a snake.
Or with Declan Murphy.
“You’re right,” she finally said, swallowing hard so that she didn’t choke on the lie. “It’s… just a snake. Nothing to be afraid of.”
Declan straightened his hipshot stance, looking confused for a moment, but then that single eye narrowed. His dirty cut-offs slid lower and sweat dripped down his skinny expanse of naked chest. “So you’re not afraid of it, Sadie Rose?” His own tongue darted forth dangerously snake-like to lick at his chapped lips, and Sadie shivered compulsively. Just at that moment Declan looked every inch the reptilian predator, waiting to devour her whole in one fell swoop as if she were a rodent in his mother’s garden. He inched forward, close enough that she could smell the stench of brine from where he’d been playing near the creek bed, close enough to see that the mud which smeared his cheek had dried and cracked around his stupid dimple, close enough that he could touch her if he so desired, and judging by the look in his eye that was an option he was considering. Knowing the way his little pea-brain worked, a challenge of some sort was imminent. Probably along the lines of if you’re not scared, then why don’t you touch it?
“If you’re not scared, then why don’t you touch it?”
Sadie wished she could feel triumphant over the fact that she’d been able to predict his words before he uttered them, but knowing Declan Murphy like the back of her hand was not a state to which she aspired. In fact, she’d be perfectly happy to forget the little toad ever existed, if he wasn’t constantly reminding her by presenting himself in her presence. She might have been able to avoid him, despite the fact that he lived next door, if it weren’t for the twin curses of being best friends with his sister and the fact that it was summertime in South Carolina. No child in her right mind would spend the endless dog days inside a non-air-conditioned old house that had the unfortunate tendency to reek of mothballs when there was a perfectly lovely tree-house in which to while away the hours, reading Sweet Valley High or sketching the passing shrimp boats.
And that tree house, despite being located in the massive oak in Gloria Mayhew’s back yard, by equal rights belonged to the four Murphy children because it was their father who had built it. It was simply an unfortunate accident of timing that Sadie had been coming down the ladder when Declan desired to go up, and now here they were, squaring off over a stupid snake.
She almost wished she’d put a pillow over him and smothered him back when she had the chance.
“I don’t have to prove anything to you, Murphy.” Sadie drew herself up to her full height, which unfortunately wasn’t all that impressive.
Declan waggled his eyebrows and sidled closer, forcing her to scratch her sweat-dampened skin against the bark. “Come on, Sadie. It won’t bite. It’s just a harmless little snake out of my mamma’s garden. She doesn’t even let my dad kill this kind because she said they discourage pests.”
Well if that was true, then why hadn’t the dumb thing discouraged Declan? Because she was pretty sure if you looked in the dictionary under “pest,” you wer
e bound to find his ugly mug.
Deciding she’d had enough of his particular brand of irritation for the day, Sadie located her backbone and thrust out her fingers. The move was lightening quick, and Declan blinked as if he wasn’t quite sure what had happened.
“There. I touched it.”
brows drew together under the thick fall of his hair. “That doesn’t count, Sadie.” He was sounding a bit discouraged. Probably because he hadn’t managed to make her run screaming from the scene in terror, which was the obvious goal of this little exercise. Then a solitary brow arched heavenward, the only body part with aspirations, and his tongue darted over his lips. “Do it again,” he ordered, in some new voice she didn’t recognize. It was like he was trying to sound like some of the high school boys who worked over the summer at his parents’ downtown Charleston restaurant – Murphy’s Irish Pub.
One side of Sadie’s face scrunched up as she regarded him with suspicion.
“No.” It was pretty succinct, as far as answers went. Then he did that licking thing again, and Sadie drew back in alarm.
“Touch the snake, real slow-like, or else you’re gonna have to kiss me.”
“I’d rather kiss the snake,” she told him, before thinking.
Declan looked disgruntled, but then grinned as evilly as always. “That can be arranged.”
Before Sadie could prepare to defend herself, the snake was thrust toward her face. She had a fleeting image of lurid green scales and forked tongue and beady little eyes before the thing made contact with her lips. The touch was less than fleeting, but for Sadie that was more than enough to send her shrieking into full-blown hysterics. She trampled right over Declan, who’d been weakened by his own fits of laughter, and left him writhing on the ground like the snake that he was as she shot back toward her house. Her screams rent the still summer air, drowning out the cicadas which had been chirping languidly and the sound of Declan’s guffaws. Somewhere down the street a screen door banged as some concerned neighbor came to investigate the ruckus, but her own house remained placidly oblivious because her Granny was deaf as a post.
Sadie shut down the siren only after she’d made it to the safety of the wide back porch, where she turned, panting and furious, toward the tree house. “I’ll get you, Declan Murphy!” she promised, her little face red and twisted with rage. “One of these days, if it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to get you good!”
“Skeeter” Cooper shook like a brown leaf in a stiff autumn wind as he ducked behind the aisle of packaged snack foods. A Moon Pie fell off the end of the display, landing in a noisy crinkle of plastic wrap at his feet. Terrified beyond reason, he inadvertently stepped on the thing as he scuttled closer to the metal shelving, causing the creamy white filling to shoot out like a preservative-laden bullet. The packaging succumbed to the pressure from the assault and tore open with a noisy
Skeeter nearly wet himself as he dropped down to all fours.
Nothing like drawing even more attention to himself by acting like a brainless idiot.
How the Marshall brothers had managed to find him, he had no earthly idea. But then Brady – the younger of the two but indisputably the
most intelligent – had always been real good at figuring stuff out. And he’d worked for that private investigator for a while, too, which undoubtedly afforded him an edge.
But damn it, he thought that he’d been playing things smart. Skeeter had been real careful not to contact any of their mutual friends – well, except for one old girlfriend, but there was no way Josie would have given him up – and had moved around for weeks on end, alternating between crashing at fleabag motels and sleeping in his car at parks and rest stops. He’d run fast and far, backtracked, and even set up a false trail by using his credit card at some places near Macon, knowing that the statement would be coming in the mail at home and
that Brady would be smart enough to check it. If, that is, Brady didn’t know how to track the transactions by some sort of hocus pocus with the computer. Because that thought had entered Skeet’s mind, he’d quickly headed east toward the coast, stopping for a while in Myrtle Beach before making his way to Charleston. There the cash he’d withdrawn from his bank account had just about run out, and he’d realized he needed to stop darting around like a scared jackrabbit and get together some kind of plan. A plan that never again would involve driving the get-away car for his thieving buddies.
He never would have agreed to such a thing if he’d had any idea what would happen.
Sucking in a breath and pulling his denim cap down to hide his distinctive white blond hair and wildly freckled face, Skeet peeked around the Moon Pies toward the register. Wilson – the older Marshall brother and the brawn of the operation – was reaching into the back pocket of his jeans, his thick fingers opening his wallet. He pulled out some bills which he extended toward the convenience store cashier, a bubblegum-snapping teenager who wore her boredom like a trendy accessory. Wilson didn’t bother looking behind him. His deep-set brown eyes stayed focused on the rack of Boat and Auto Traders displayed beside the counter, and the hope that maybe this was just a horrible coincidence began to pierce Skeet’s cloak of terror.
Sweat trickled from beneath the brim of his cap as he eased himself back to his feet.
It was conceivable that Brady and Wilson had no idea he was here. Neither of them had given any indication of awareness, and Wilson was now thumbing through the selection of used pick-ups for sale while he waited for the teenager to make change. There was no doubt that they’d somehow followed his trail to Charleston, but Skeet was starting to think that maybe they hadn’t followed him
. They had no idea that they’d just alerted their prey to their presence by stopping at this particular BP.