No one else believes there’s a murderer out there…
Grieving widow Andy Vaughn has struggled to get back to the real world after her husband’s sudden death. But her son needs her, and when a terrifying encounter with a snake reveals unknown skills, the American expat feels alive for the first time in years. She’s going to leave behind her career as a science teacher and instead start training as a national park ranger with a specialty in snake handling. There have been a high number of brown snake incidents in their small community over the last few months, and Port Matthews desperately needs an experienced snake handler on the Parks and Wildlife team.
But with two deaths and several close calls in only a matter of weeks, is the increased snake activity just an unusual spike? Or is something more sinister going on? New cop in town Dev certainly thinks something isn’t quite right, but nobody is going to believe the city cop with a chequered past. With growing suspicions that a serial killer might be out there using snakes as a weapon, Dev is going to need to find proof — and fast. Because the serial killer has a new victim in his sights, and she might just be the beautiful snake handler Dev is fast falling in love with.
He liked to watch.
More than a preference, it was his duty. His moral imperative, to bear witness. God had assigned him this sacred task and he would be faithful in carrying it out.
But above all that, he liked to watch.
Knees aching, he shifted his weight as he peered through the hedge at the back of the farmhouse. He had never minded the hours of waiting. Waiting near enough that when the moment came he could actually see the flash of realisation light their faces.
In the hour he’d been crouching here he’d remained all but motionless. Though the weeds had begun to prickle and itch, the shadows to chill, his legs to scream, he’d allowed himself no more than the barest flexing of his muscles. He would not ruin it all by revealing himself. He wasn’t a player. He just set the stage.
At last he heard footsteps from inside the house. The back door opened and the old woman stepped out onto the veranda, carrying her laundry.
Remembering how she’d laughed in his face, torn up his message, he was gripped by an impulse to rush at her and finish it himself. To feel her scrawny neck in his hands like one of the chickens that scratched in the yard.
He calmed himself. It wasn’t his place to exact revenge. Yet through his actions she would be judged.
Her white hair stirred by a gentle breeze, the woman came down the steps and walked to the wash line in the centre of the yard. He leaned aside to keep her in view, filled with a sudden rush of excitement. But she simply set her basket down and began hanging up her wash.
Frustration built. Was the old crow blind? He couldn’t have left it in a more conspicuous—
He caught his breath. She’d spotted the sack. He could see the puzzled expression on her face.
She picked it up, seemed to take note of its unexpected weight—but, thankfully, not the movement within—then opened it and reached inside.
A short sharp cry.
It was done.
She dropped the bundle and staggered back, clutching her hand. Turning for the house, she took but two steps before collapsing onto the grass. Her body arched, her legs kicked weakly, then she lay still.
Excitement faded to disappointment. Over so fast? Quicker than even he had expected. But then she was feeble. And perhaps more deserving than most.
He rose to his feet and pushed through the hedge. With his face uplifted to the sun he paused to drink in the warmth of God’s love, the unrivalled joy of knowing he had once again fulfilled his sacred role. Then he walked towards the body.
He circled around the woman’s head. As he bent to pick up the empty sack—its occupant now slithered off—he caught the slight movement of her fingers. He watched, impassive, as she opened her eyes, reached out a hand to him, then lowered her head and fell still once more.
The familiar urge to linger engulfed him, the same fascination that had kept him motionless behind the hedge for nearly an hour. No doubt he could have just set his snare and walked away; the outcome surely would’ve been the same.
But to see the wicked fall before God, the arrogant who believed themselves above his law …
Oh, yes. He liked to watch.
From a bench at the edge of the ocean-side park, Andy watched Jeremy playing cricket on the lawn. She smiled at his gawky adolescent movements as he pin-wheeled the ball in his friend’s direction.
He’d changed so much in the last three years, growing from a solid seven-year-old to this tall gangly youth. But the biggest changes were beneath the surface, buried deep and far less innocuous. And, as she’d only recently begun to fear, they were ones she might be responsible for.
She turned to find Cheryl returning from the car. The woman set a plastic container on the table, then, shading her eyes, scanned the lawn. ‘You see Megan anywhere?’
‘She just headed over to use the toilet.’
Cheryl laughed. ‘Must be desperate. That kid has a thing about creepy-crawlies and those loos have been known to have spiders in them.’ She took up a knife, opened the container and began slicing the cake inside. ‘So are you going to tell me what’s eating you or do we have to play twenty questions?’
Andy smiled despite herself. She’d never been able to keep anything from Cheryl. ‘Has Jeremy seemed a bit down to you lately?’
‘Not that I’ve noticed. Why, you think he’s getting sick?’
‘No, I meant more … emotionally.’
When Cheryl looked over, Andy shrugged. ‘He spends more time at your place than at home. I thought you’d be the one to ask.’ She said it jokingly but there was more truth to it than she wanted to admit.
‘Well, he certainly hasn’t seemed unhappy to me. But then he’s usually off with Shawn in his room playing computer games so it’s hard to tell. What makes you think he’s having problems?’
‘Things have felt different between us lately. He seems so distant.’ Andy thought a moment. ‘Actually, maybe it isn’t all that recent. Maybe it’s been going on for a while now and I just haven’t noticed.’
‘Noticed what exactly?’
‘We never talk, never do anything together anymore.’
‘Sounds like why I split up with Liam.’ Cheryl licked the icing from her finger then plunged the knife in for another cut. ‘You’re doing something with Jeremy today though, aren’t you.’
‘He only came because you brought Shawn. He never tells me anything, Cher. What he’s doing, what he’s feeling.’
‘Ten-year-olds aren’t real big on that, especially boys. Even if there’s something they want to share, words don’t come easy.’
‘Yeah, I know, but … somehow I sense it isn’t that.’ Andy sighed. ‘To be honest I think it’s me.’
‘Why, what did you do?’
‘I’m afraid it’s more what I haven’t done.’ Andy dug her thumbnail into a crack in the table’s surface. ‘I’ve been thinking about things a fair bit lately and … Well, looking back, I have a feeling I mightn’t have been there for Jeremy as much as I should’ve been. Oh, I fed him, made him brush his teeth, do his homework. But I wasn’t always there. If you know what I mean.’
Cheryl blinked at her. ‘Shocking. The minute I get home I’m calling Social Services.’ When Andy didn’t smile, she set down her knife and slid onto the bench across from her.
‘So what are we talking here?’ Cheryl said. ‘You’re passed out drunk every afternoon when he gets home from school?’
‘No, of course not.’
‘High on drugs. Bringing home a different bloke every night.’
‘Cher, for God’s sake—’
‘Well, then what?’
‘I don’t know. It’s just that as I look back now I’m starting to realise I cut myself off from so many things. I quit my job, stopped going out. For a while there I hardly saw anyone, even you. I’m just afraid that, without ever realising it, I might have cut off from Jeremy as well. And now …’
‘Now what? He hates you for it? Come on, Andy. So you aren’t the perfect parent. So you had issues you had to deal with and sometimes it meant he got less attention. It doesn’t mean you ever stopped loving him, and Jeremy would bloody well know that.’
Andy shook her head. ‘When I look back on the last three years, it’s as though I’m seeing them through a fog. Everything I did … It was like I was simply going through the motions.’
‘It’s called grief, kiddo. Maybe with some clinical depression thrown in. And after what you went through it’s perfectly understandable. And forgivable.’
‘Maybe it is. But it still changed things.’ Andy looked over at the boys again. It was the first glorious day of spring—the sun was shining, the air filled with the scent of acacia and almond blossom. Yet all she could see was the child she had lost.
‘He won’t let me touch him, Cher,’ she whispered. ‘I try sometimes and he pulls away.’
‘You don’t think that’s just normal adolescent behaviour?’
‘I can’t remember the last time I hugged him.’ Andy swiped at her eyes.
They were silent a moment, then Cheryl sighed. ‘All right look, I’m no shrink but here’s how I see it: you loved your parents and you lost them; you loved Greg and you lost him. Each of those things would’ve been hard enough to deal with on their own but they happened less than six months apart.’
Andy cocked her head at a whisper of sound wafting towards them across the lawn.
‘Three years later,’ Cheryl went on, ‘you’re finally getting over the worst of it when it suddenly hits you—I still have Jeremy, I still love him. And that’s when the panic starts to set in. You see what I’m getting at?’
Andy frowned. The sound had stopped, but Jeremy and Shawn must have heard it too—they were standing frozen, looking towards the toilet block. ‘Cheryl, wasn’t that—’
‘Suddenly you have this desperate need to hang on tight. The need to make sure Jeremy is safe every second of every—’
Andy reached out and grabbed her arm. ‘Cher, listen.’
In the silence that followed the sound came again. A thin high-pitched scream, floating on the wind. Cheryl’s head turned.
Release date: 2022-05-01