Excerpt: Perfectly Twisted

Book 1: CORE Above the Law

Excerpt: Perfectly Twisted Book Cover

Every great story seems to begin with a snake.
—Nicolas Cage

The Young Reverend

Easterville, Tennessee
Thursday, 5:24 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time

 “I HATE YOUR mama.”

The young boy wiped the tears from his face and stared at his daddy. “I do, too,” he whispered. Worried his mama would hear him, he looked around the room. She was just down the hall in her bedroom folding laundry. As it was, if she knew he was sitting, rather than kneeling on the cornmeal she’d sprinkled on the hardwood floor, she’d whoop his butt.

“How long did she make you kneel this time?” Daddy asked, and rubbed the boy’s red knees.

He shrugged. “Since after school. I’m still supposed to be kneeling.” He started to rise and move back into position, but his tired legs gave and he plopped back onto his rear. “I don’t want to get in trouble,” he said, fresh tears burning his tired eyes. “Help me, Daddy, before Mama sees me sittin’.”

“Don’t you worry about your mama. I’ll take care of her for us.” Daddy wrapped an arm around his shoulder. “Would you like that?”

“What do you mean by takin’ care of her?” he asked. Even at eight, he understood what his daddy was suggesting, but wanted to be sure before he answered. He’d witnessed his daddy in action, and knew his temper well. Daddy had never raised a hand to him or even to Mama, but just last week he’d pistol-whipped the pastor of The Church of Jesus Christ. Daddy had never liked Reverend Clarence Bramson. He hadn’t, either. The man was a little too friendly with Mama. Plus, Daddy was a pastor at the Church of the Living God. Since Mama no longer believed in Daddy’s teachings, she’d started going to Pastor Bramson’s church. Daddy hadn’t liked that. Not one bit. What would Daddy’s congregation say about his wife spending her Sundays at a different church? That’d be as bad as cheating on Daddy. But it no longer mattered. That pastor wouldn’t be preaching anymore. He also wouldn’t be tattling on Daddy, not when the sheriff was a member of Daddy’s congregation, and a firm believer in Daddy’s teachings.

Daddy smiled. “Boy, you ain’t dumb. Why, you’re the smartest kid I ever done seen. I think you know. But I’ll tell you anyway, ‘cause if I’m gonna do it, I want you to be there with me.” Daddy hugged him close. “Me and you. That’s all we need. Your mama? The only good thing that woman has ever done was give me you.”

He looked up at his daddy, and swallowed hard. “You want to…kill her?”

His daddy’s eyes shined with laughter. “Our Lord says killin’ is a sin. But God does forgive His children, don’t He?”

He leaned forward and looked toward the hallway to make sure Mama wasn’t listening around the corner. Sure they were alone, he rested his back against Daddy’s arm. “I thought you don’t believe in God,” he whispered.

“I don’t. Do you?”

“Mama does. She says the only way to salvation is through Jesus. That’s why I should read the Bible every day, and when I’m bad…” He glanced to his red knees. “I should pray.”

“You were kneeling for over two hours. How much prayin’ did you do?”


“Then what was you thinkin’ about?”

He twined his fingers together and twisted them, just like his belly was doing now. Twisting up, like one of Daddy’s snakes might do before they struck. “I don’t wanna tell you.”

“I’m your daddy, you can tell me anything. You don’t judge me, and I’ll never judge you. Hear me?”

He nodded. “I was thinkin’ what it’d feel like to hurt Mama.”

“How’d you want to hurt her?”

He shrugged and looked to their brand new Curtis Mathes TV console. No kid in Easterville had a TV like theirs. Daddy had even bought them a Beta VCR so they could tape stuff.

Daddy let out a quiet laugh. “Boy, I hear the gears grindin’ in that head of yours. Come on now and tell me.”

He looked to his twined hands. “I was wonderin’ what might happen if I pushed the TV onto Mama when she was dustin’ it.” He looked at his daddy. “I wouldn’t do that. I know how much you like your TV, and I wanna be able to watch The Real Ghostbusters.”

“I know you do, son.” His daddy patted his shoulder and laughed again. “Yeah, it’d be a shame to ruin our TV, and I’ll be honest, I’ve thought of a few ways to hurt your mama, too. You know she was gonna leave my church, right?”

He nodded. “That ain’t right. You’re a better preacher than Pastor Bramson.”

Daddy narrowed his eyes. “How do you know?”

“’Cause Mama made me go to one of his Wednesday evenin’ sermons.”


“The time you was gettin’ the rattlers from Mr. Jimmy.” That night had been a bad one. He’d been forced to listen to Pastor Bramson’s boring teachings, then pray for an hour while Mama met with the preacher. Once they were home, and Mama saw that Daddy had brought more snakes into the house, she’d screamed and yelled at Daddy. He’d thought for sure Daddy would hit her. Daddy hadn’t. But he had wanted to. He’d wanted to take one of Mama’s cast iron frying pans and shut her up—for good. She’d made him betray his Daddy by going to another church, and he wasn’t stupid. He knew how babies were made, and he’d bet his baseball collection that Mama hadn’t spent an hour praying with Pastor Bramson that night.

“Hmm. Well, that’s mighty interestin’ news. I guess it’s a good thing Bramson won’t be preaching no more, huh?”

“I think so.”

“But what do you think about gettin’ rid of Mama. I know you’re young, but you’re old for your age. Smart, too. You also gotta know she don’t approve of my snake handling ways.”

“She says you blasphamitize the Lord’s teachings with them snakes.”

Daddy chuckled. “I think you mean, blaspheme. But that’s okay. It’s a big word, with big meaning. I’ll let you in on a little secret. I don’t blasphamitize anything. I use the Bible to get what I want.” Daddy looked to their new Curtis Mathes. “Like our TV. How do you think I paid for that? Well, I’ll tell you how—my congregation. Your mama is a pious, self-righteous bitch. She’ll sit and read the Bible, pray to her god, then turn around and beat the shit out of you. How is that Christian-like?”

“It ain’t.”

“Nope, not at all. See, I might take money for preaching bullshit I don’t believe in, but in the end, my congregation leaves my church satisfied. I give them a show.” He raised his hands to the ceiling. “I hold my snakes up high and show them that with God on our side, even the venomous serpent can’t hurt us.” Daddy wrapped his hand around his shoulder again. “Mama knew what I was when she married me, but she got religion in her head and hasn’t been right since.”

“What do you mean? What were you when you two got married?”

“A con-artist. Know what that is?”

He shook his head.

“I take people’s money, and I want to keep takin’ my congregation’s money. I want my church and what I preach to expand across Appalachia. And I want my boy by my side while I do it. Hell, I’ll ordain you and you could become the youngest reverend in history.”

The youngest reverend in history? He pictured himself holding one of Daddy’s snakes and preaching right alongside him. The congregation would fall to their knees and pray before them and maybe give them enough money so he could have a TV in his room. “Will you teach me how to pretend to speak in tongues?” Since he could remember, he’d watched his daddy talk gibberish in front of the mirror. Daddy had once told him it was a crowd pleaser, and that was all he’d needed to know. But now he wanted to know all of Daddy’s secrets. He wanted Mama gone from their lives so they could preach together and make lots of money.

“In time, boy. But first we need to decide what to do about Mama. She won’t like me ordaining you. I’m worried what she’ll do to you when I ain’t at the house.”

More kneeling. More praying and reading the Bible. More whoopings. “We don’t want to ruin our new TV.”

“No, we don’t.”

“And I don’t want you gettin’ caught for doing something bad to her.” He turned to his daddy. “What do you want to do to her?”

Daddy had one of those faraway stares he’d seen his grammy do when she would go inside her old head. “I think you’re too young to know.”

“No, I ain’t. Tell me, Daddy. I won’t tell no one.” He used his finger to cross his heart. “I promise.”

Daddy looked at him and smiled. “I know you won’t, and you’re right. If you’re going to join me on my mission, you’re old enough to know.” Daddy leaned close to his ear. “I want to gut your mama and watch her bleed.”

A shiver ran through him. He’d pictured hurting Mama, but never like that. “You’d get in trouble for sure.”

“I know I would, so I ain’t doin’ it. Nothing wrong with dreaming, though.”

“What if a snake bit her? That’d kill her for sure, wouldn’t it?”

Daddy sighed. “Boy, I knew I could count on you. Why, Mr. Jimmy even found a rattler when he was huntin’ yesterday. It’ll do the trick.” Daddy stood, then helped him to his feet. When his knees buckled, Daddy picked him up in his strong arms and sat him on the couch. “No time like the present.”

Goose bumps coated his skin and his stomach twisted up again. “You’re gonna do it now?”

“I don’t have to, but why wait? Do you want to spend tomorrow on your knees again?”

“No, sir.”

“What’d you do to deserve it anyway?”

His cheeks grew warm and he looked to his red knees. “Mama caught me lookin’ at the bra and panties section of her JC Penney catalogue.”

Daddy grinned. “That’s my boy. Ain’t nothing wrong with appreciatin’ a woman’s body. So how ‘bout it? You want me to take care of Mama?”

He considered his mother and pictured her face. She wasn’t pretty like the women in the catalogue and had these deep parenthesis around her mouth that made her look ugly. He also couldn’t remember the last time she’d smiled at him, or hugged and kissed him like his friends’ moms would do. All she did was yell and quote stuff from the Bible, and put down Daddy. He hated her. Hated the way she treated him and Daddy. Hated the whoopings.

“Yes,” he said.

Daddy rested a hand on his shoulder. “You’re a good boy. We’re gonna do great things together.” He stepped away, then turned on the TV. “I won’t be long,” Daddy said, then walked down the hall.

Alf played on the TV. The show was kind of dumb, but his legs ached too much to stand up and change the channel. As he watched the show, his stomach settled and the knots disappeared. Daddy was going to make everything all right. He’d take care of Mama and make it so she couldn’t hurt him again.

His mama screamed. He shot upright and tensed. Waited. Should he go see what happened? Or should he wait for Daddy? Daddy said he’d take care of Mama, and Daddy always made good on his promises.

By the time Daddy came down the hallway Alf was ending. He stared at Daddy, unsure of what to say or ask.

“She ain’t dead. Yet,” Daddy said, and plopped next to him on the couch. “Let’s watch a little TV before bed.”

“Okay, Daddy.”

Together they sat on the couch. As Alf ended and The Hogan Family began, Mama cried and pounded on the door. Scared she’d live and hurt him, worried his Daddy would go to jail, he moved close to Daddy.

Daddy wrapped an arm around him. “Don’t worry, son. By morning, she’ll be gone.”

Church of the Living God, Easterville, Tennessee

Saturday, 10:47 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time

Daddy had been right. With a little help, Mama had died sometime during the night. All her pounding and crying had driven him and Daddy nuts, so Daddy had given her a bonk on the head to keep her quiet. By three in the morning, she’d gone to her god in the sky. Today, she’d go into the ground.

“That was an excellent sermon, Reverend.” Lyle Gessup, one of Daddy’s hunting buddies, as well as a member of his congregation, shook Daddy’s hand. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you kindly, Lyle,” Daddy said, then frowned. “It’s a shame my wife didn’t believe enough. Had she put her faith in God, the venom of the snake wouldn’t have harmed her.”

“Amen.” Lyle nodded. “Are you worried about her salvation?”

“I admit I have my fears. If the Holy Spirit runs strong through your body, there ain’t nothing to fear. God will protect you and deliver you from all that is evil.”

“Amen,” Lyle repeated, and shifted his gaze to the wooden casket displayed on the small altar. “Your wife was a devout woman. Her death makes me wonder if I have enough of the Holy Spirit in me. It also makes me wonder what’ll happen to me when I die.” Lyle shook his head. “My apologies, Reverend. This ain’t no time for this kinda talk.”

“That’s okay, Lyle. I think we all wonder what will happen to our souls upon death. If we’re free of sin, though, there ain’t no need to wonder,” Daddy said with a reassuring smile.

“But your wife, what with as devout as she was, she still couldn’t handle the venom.” Lyle let out a breath that was laced with whiskey. “I think I need to go pray for her.”

“You do that,” Daddy said, and gave Lyle a pat on the shoulder.

After the man walked away, the boy looked to the altar, stared at his dead mama, and thought about what Daddy had said to Lyle. “What does happen to us when we die?” he asked.

Daddy led him to the casket. The rest of the congregation, made up of thirty-five or so, hung back, praying or talking among themselves. “What are you askin’ me, boy?”

“If we don’t believe in God, what’ll happen to our souls?”

“Don’t know. Could be as soon as we die we’re reborn as someone else.” He smiled. “Maybe even an ant or bird. Or, it could be we just die, which is why we should make the most out of livin’.”

“What about going to Hell?”

“Well, if there ain’t no such thing as God, how can there be a Hell?”

“I guess you’re right, but are you worried about what Mr. Lyle said?”

“What’s that?”

“He thinks Mama was a better Christian than him.”

“We know that ain’t true.”

“Yeah, but aren’t you worried the congregation will start wondering about what’ll happen to them if they ain’t got enough Holy Spirit in them when they die?”

Daddy hugged him to his side. “Boy, you sure are a smart one. I could use your mama’s early demise to give my congregation hope that there’s salvation even if we die with sin stainin’ our soul. I’ll have to think how to do that.”

“What about the snakes? You could put one in her casket before she gets buried.”

Daddy grinned. “I could put one in her belly.”

He touched his stomach. “How would you do that?”

“I did say I wanted to gut your mama. I could open her up and put the rattler inside.” He snapped his fingers. “And let the beast swallow her sins and cleanse her soul.”

Daddy was the best preacher ever, even if he didn’t believe a word of what he preached. “Will you get in trouble?”

“Don’t you worry, son. I’ll talk to the sheriff. In the meantime, I want to do something special.” He turned toward his congregation. “Before I take my beloved wife home and bury her in the family plot, there’s something I need you all to do for me.”

Daddy stood behind him. “Since my wife loved Jesus so much, I know she’d would want me to do this now. I need y’all to gather around. My son is just as Christianly as his mama. I want him to work by my side and learn my ways so he can carry on this church when I’m old and gray. I want his mission to start now. Today, my boy will become a reverend.”

As the congregation approved and applauded, the boy’s small chest filled with pride. He had a mission, and he’d work side-by-side with his daddy. After Daddy had finished the ceremony, which the young Reverend was sure had been made up on the spot, he pulled aside the sheriff. He couldn’t hear what Daddy said to the man, but when the sheriff nodded, and shook Daddy’s hand, the boy had a feeling the sheriff approved of their idea.

“We’re all set,” Daddy said to him. “We’re gonna take your mama’s body home and perform the ritual there. The sheriff is letting some of the members know what we’re doing, so we’ll have several handpicked, honorary and trustworthy witnesses.”

The young Reverend still worried. “What if people talk and word gets around town?”

“Hell, boy, the Catholics have their exorcism, now we got ourselves our own ritual. Don’t you worry about people talkin’. I’ll be sure to let our members know that I’ll unleash the wrath of God upon them if they spread rumors.”

No. Daddy would pistol-whip or take a bat to one of their heads. He’d do the same if Daddy asked him to. He and Daddy might not believe in God or what Daddy preached, but the Church of the Living God belonged to them. Its members worshiped Daddy and his teachings, and maybe one day, if he worked hard, they would worship him, too.

“So what are you gonna call the ritual?” the young Reverend asked.

Daddy tilted his head as if he were thinking. Then he patted his shoulder. “Got it. We’re gonna call it the Ritual of the Serpents.” His eyes glittered with laughter. “What do you think about that, boy?”

He loved it, and to think his Daddy would include him. “I think Mama would hate it,” he said with a smile.

“Which is why it’s so perfect. Come on, son. Let’s head home and gut the bitch.”

The Ritual of the Serpents

Twenty-six years later…

Ochopee, Florida

Saturday, 8:07 p.m. Eastern Standard Time


The Reverend stared at the old fool in front of him. Back in Easterville, Tennessee, Harlan Reed had been a devout follower of his father’s church. About fifteen years ago, the widower had remarried a woman half his age and, a few years later, had moved to Ochopee, Florida, with his bride and her six-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. The only reason he’d bothered to see ol’ Harlan was because the man, thanks to winning an asbestos lawsuit against a previous employer, had money. Lots of money.

“You mentioned during our phone conversation that your stepdaughter has been gettin’ into trouble.” The Reverend rested a hand on Harlan’s shoulder. “But only God can decide whether she belongs with the damned.”

“Amen.” Harlan nodded. “You’re right. I ain’t got no place to decide. But you, as your father’s son, do. How is your daddy?”

Old. Dying. The Reverend sighed. He didn’t know what he’d do once Daddy was gone. It’d been just the two of them for nearly three decades, and he sure did love the man. Daddy was almost bedridden now, but when he’d told his daddy about Harlan’s call, the old man’s eyes had brightened. He, too, knew Harlan was worth a pretty penny. “Thank the good Lord he celebrated his eightieth birthday last month. As you know, he’s retired.” He tapped on his chest. “The spirit is there, but the physical strength ain’t what it used to be.” He grinned. “Hell, my daddy jokes that he can’t even lift a baby garter snake, let alone an adult rattler.”

Harlan nodded. “He’s a good man. I remember how he ordained you at your mama’s funeral, then when he made it official a few years later. You’re a good man. Thanks to you, he don’t need to do any heavy lifting no more. Not when he has you to carry out his calling.”

His calling.

His daddy’s calling was for the ignorant and the fanatical. Who in their right mind would ever think that God wanted His followers to use the serpent that He had cast as the lowliest of creatures to do work is His name? Fools. He knew it, his daddy knew it, and together they exploited the stupid and righteous.

“Which is why I traveled here to see you, Harlan. You’ve been good to my daddy’s church, even after the police shut it down years ago. Without supporters like you, he wouldn’t have a roof over his head.”

“I’d give your daddy my house if he needed it.” Harlan closed his eyes. “When you were just a youngin’, maybe ten or twelve, I witnessed the way God worked through your daddy.” When Harlan opened his eyes, they glistened with that familiar awestruck, distant stare that he’d seen more times than he could count. “I watched him preach, heard him speaking in the tongues of God’s angels, and when he raised that rattler and it bit him?” Harlan shook his head. “Your daddy didn’t flinch. And he survived that bite. God Almighty. He survived.”

His daddy survived because the snake was too sickly to release enough, if any, venom to kill him. His daddy’s trick? Keep the snakes malnourished and it made them, along with their venom, weak. As for speaking in tongues? His daddy had taught him how to speak gibberish, but he’d never been as good at as his father. If the man wasn’t as ugly as the backside of a monkey’s ass, his daddy would’ve made a fine actor. “I was actually fifteen when that happened and I remember it well. If I recall, you were dealing with your wife’s cancer.”

“I was,” Harlan said, his tone melancholy. “She was a good woman, just like my Sally.”

Harlan’s second wife, Sally, had died eight years after they’d moved to Ochopee, leaving him to raise her daughter, Katie, who he’d adopted when they had married. “You’ve suffered plenty, Harlan. And now you’re suffering because of your daughter.”

“No child of God should ever act so…foul.”

“Define foul for me.”

“Sex, drugs, alcohol.”

While the Reverend had no interest in drugs, he was rather fond of sex and alcohol. “What a shame she’s strayed so far from God’s path.”

“You got that right. Katie just turned twenty-one. I kicked her out when she hit eighteen, but the girl keeps comin’ back. She can’t hold a job. She’s stolen money from me, along with her mama’s jewelry. That girl would do anything to get her hands on them drugs she worships.”

“Such a shame.” The Reverend shook his head. “Where is she now?”

“Sleeping off whatever she was drinkin’ or smokin’ last night. She’s down the hall in her old bedroom.”

The Reverend rose from the dining room table, then peered around the corner of the modest ranch-style home. “Do you think she’ll talk to me?”

“She has no choice. I warned her last night when she stumbled in from only God knows where, that you were coming. I told her she needed to heed your advice and accept the Lord Jesus, or I was going to change the locks and call the sheriff if she ever came ‘round here again.”

“Then I best go and speak with her. I’d hate to see you having to involve the law.”

Harlan also stood. “She’s in the last room at the end of the hall.” He looked to the ventilated plastic container on the tiled floor. “You takin’ your snakes?”

“Not just yet. We’ll talk first,” the Reverend said, then started down the hallway. When he realized Harlan was following him, he turned to the man. “Alone.”

Harlan stopped and nodded. “Understood.”

The Reverend continued on, and when he reached the closed door, he knocked.

“Go away,” a woman shouted.

He opened the door and quickly found the light switch. “Mornin’, Katie,” he said, and smiled when the girl pulled the pale pink and green comforter over her head. The Reverend glanced around. With pink paint on the walls and a dollhouse bookshelf in the corner, the room looked as if it were for a ten-year-old girl. The only evidence a slutty young woman lived here was the spiky set of heels and a little black leather skirt on the floor, and the pack of cigarettes on the nightstand. “I hear you’ve been gettin’ into some trouble.”

Katie didn’t respond. She kept the comforter over her head and rolled on her side.

He sat on the edge of the bed. “I know Harlan told you about me. I suggest you sit up and listen to what I have to say.”

When the woman remained silent, he grabbed a fistful of the comforter and tore it off her. “Get out,” she yelled, and quickly scrambled to her knees. “I don’t care who you are or why Harlan wants you here.”

She wore nothing but a skimpy tank top and panties, revealing plenty of bared flesh. Her skin was so pale he had no problem finding the track marks along her arms and legs. Her makeup was slightly smeared, making the dark circles under her eyes more prominent. The girl was skinnier than he liked, but even in her disheveled state, her dirty hair sticking up at multiple angles, there was something attractive about her. He glanced to her pert breasts. Yes, very attractive. “Harlan’s worried about you,” he said, meeting her gaze.

She snorted. “Yeah, right.”

“He also claims that you’re abusing drugs, and that your abuse has gotten so out of hand, you’re stealin’ from him.”

“He’s full of shit.”

“You didn’t take money or your mama’s jewelry?”

“I did, but my mama gave me her jewelry before she died. Kinda hard to steal something that belongs to you.”

“What about the money you stole from Harlan?”

“He’s got enough to go around.”

Yes, he did. By the time he left today, he’d have a nice portion of that money. “Katie, what you’re doing to your body is unhealthy. God—”

“Fuck that. I don’t want to hear any preaching. Now get the hell out of my room.”

He grabbed her by her shoulders and gave her a shake. “This ain’t your room or your house. Everything you see around you belongs to Harlan. You belong to him.”

She struggled to free herself. “I don’t belong to nobody.”

He released her. “I’m guessin’ the money and jewelry you stole are long gone. So, who gives you the junk you put in your veins? How do you afford it if you don’t have a job?”

Katie glanced away. “None of your business.”

“I’m making it my business. Are you selling yourself?”

“Get out,” she said, keeping her gaze averted and crossing her arms over her small breasts.

Holy hell. Harlan’s little girl had grown up to be a whore. Who would’ve thought? “When Harlan finds out you’re prostituting yourself for drugs, I can’t see him allowing you to ever enter his home again,” he said, rising from the bed.

She gripped his arm. “I’m not a prostitute.”

“And I’m not stupid. How do you afford the drugs?”

Her chin trembled. “You don’t understand. I’ve gone to him for help, but he just turns a blind eye. Please, he doesn’t need to know. I…I can stop.”

“The drugs or whoring?”

“Both. Don’t tell him. This is the only place I’ve got. It’s the one place I feel safe,” she said, her glassy eyes imploring. “I know I’ve done a lot of bad things, but I can change.”

Well, shit. With the way Harlan had spoken on the phone, he hadn’t expected the girl to confess so damned quickly. If he was going to earn the five grand Harlan had promised, he’d have to stretch out this coming-to-Jesus moment a little longer. “You’d be willin’ to enter a rehab program?” he asked.

She looked away again. “I’ll try it out.”

“Not good enough.” He shook her off him and stood. “I’m going to recommend tough love. I think Harlan should force you on the streets until you crawl back to him begging for help.”

Katie hurried off the bed and stopped him at the door. “Please. I’m begging you. Don’t tell him. He knows I’m not a virgin, but if he knew the truth, it’d kill him.”

He smiled. “You almost sound like you care.”

Her eyes filled with tears. “Because I do. I’ve wronged him. I know it. I know it every time I shoot up or spread my legs for a fix.” Tears trickled down her pale cheeks, causing her mascara to run. She ran her hands along his chest. “Please. Talk him into giving me a second chance.” She shifted her hands to his crotch.

He grabbed her wrists and stopped her before she could stroke him through his pants. Although he could use a quick lay, even he had standards. He’d rather be bitten by one of the rattlers he’d brought with him than catch a disease from a drug-abusing whore. “I need to reflect and pray. I suggest you do the same.”

She dropped to her knees, and reached for his belt and pants. “I’ll pray,” she said.

He pushed her away. “Katie, if you want me to talk to Harlan, then you better straighten up and quick. Trying to seduce one of God’s disciples ain’t gonna help you none. Understand?”

Tears streamed down her cheeks, along with more mascara. She nodded and stood. “I’m sorry. I just thought—”

“You thought wrong. Now get some pants on and wait for me. I’m going to talk to Harlan, then I’ll be back in a few minutes,” he said, and left the room.

“Well?” Harlan asked when the Reverend reached the dining room.

There were two ways he could play this—be a good preacher and help Harlan and Katie, or go for the money. Since he loved money…“She’s worse than you thought.”

The old man’s eyes widened. “How bad?”

“She’s whoring herself for drugs.” The Reverend rested his hand on Harlan’s shoulder. “She even offered herself to me if I could keep you from kickin’ her out of your home.”

“Dear Lord.”

“We need to pray for guidance, Harlan. And you need to decide what you want to do with her.”

“If people find out…” Harlan shook his head. “I can’t be connected to a whore. The drugs were one thing. But whorin’?” He let out a sigh and looked down the hall to the closed bedroom door. “Can you do what we discussed when I called you? You know, help me out like your daddy helped Lyle Gessup’s wife, like he helped your mama?”

Lyle Gessup was as bat-shit-crazy as the rest of his father’s congregation. He’d also witnessed what he and Daddy had done to Mama before they’d buried her in the family plot. When Lyle had discovered his wife had been cheating on him, and that the child she’d recently birthed wasn’t his, he’d asked Daddy to perform the Ritual of the Serpents.

Now, Daddy had only done the ritual once, and that had been on Mama. But the members of the congregation who’d been selected to watch the ritual hadn’t a clue. That day, while Daddy had cut into Mama’s belly, making up the ritual as he’d performed it, the members of their church had stared at him with awe and fear—no one wanted to be a sinner. “Be pure of heart and soul, lest God releases his serpents to swallow the evil within you,” his daddy had told the congregation. Then, after he’d finished working on Mama, he’d gone on to cite a few times when such a ritual had been carried out. Every story had been utter bullshit. Even so, the congregation had believed Daddy. Especially Lyle. Apparently Harlan had, too.

“I can perform the ritual, Harlan, but these are different times and we ain’t in Appalachia no more. What you’re asking me to do could have the law after us. Non-believers just don’t understand our ways.”

“I’ll pay you double.”

Double? For what he was risking he’d need more money. “Make it fifteen thousand and I’ll take care of Katie. She’ll be pure of heart and soul within no time.”

When Harlan agreed without flinching, the Reverend wished he’d set his price higher. That was okay. They might no longer have a bricks-and-mortar church, but thanks to his daddy’s legacy, they still had believers in over a half dozen states they could fleece. There’d be plenty of money coming in over the years, plus, once Daddy passed on, he’d have total control over his father’s half-million dollar bank account instead of the modest monthly allowance he currently received.

“Her soul will be clean?” Harlan asked.

“As a newborn baby’s.”

Nodding, Harlan wiped a hand over the bald spot in the middle of his head. “This life ain’t no good for her. She needs to be with her mama.”

While he didn’t agree, he wouldn’t back out now. He could use the fifteen grand. Half to pay off his gambling debt, the other half to treat himself to a nice vacation. Maybe he’d take a cruise or go to one of those all-inclusive resorts.

“I think you’re making the right decision,” the Reverend said. “If you’re ready, I’ll need a few things for the ritual.” After he instructed Harlan to cover the dining room table with plastic garbage bags and to bring him the sharpest knife he owned, the Reverend placed the duffle bag he’d brought with him onto the dining room chair. He set a needle, threaded with fishing line, on the table, along with several pairs of latex gloves. When he was finished, he looked to Harlan. “You’re sure about this? Once the ritual begins, I can’t take it back.”

“I’ve been praying on this for a long time, Reverend. I know in my heart it’s the right thing to do.”

The Reverend glanced down the hall. “I promise this won’t take long.”

He walked toward Katie’s door, then entered her room. Now wearing a pair of low-riding jeans, she stood by the opened bedroom window smoking a cigarette. After he shut the door, she turned. “How’d it go?” she asked, then dropped the cigarette butt into a can of Mountain Dew. “Does he want to see me?”

“He does.”

“Did you tell him I offered myself to you?”

“No. I told him you’re a lost soul who needs mending. Harlan’s willing to give you a second chance.” He held out his hand. “Come here, Katie.” When she reached him, he smiled. “The first step to getting better is for you to open the door and face your demons.”

She drew in a deep breath. “Thank you. I meant what I said. Harlan…Dad has been good to me. I don’t want to be forced to live on the streets.” She gave him a shy smile. “I’m sorry I offered to…you know…” she finished with a shrug.

He didn’t believe one word. Not one. He knew people hooked on drugs. She was lying to him, and would lie to Harlan in order to keep from being booted from the house. Did she deserve what was coming because she was a lying, whoring drug addict? Nope. But he couldn’t pass up fifteen grand.

The Reverend placed both hands on her shoulders. “You’re welcome.” He slid his hands up her neck. “You’ll soon see, when you leave this life behind, you’ll be in a better place,” he said, then kneed her in the stomach.

She grunted and doubled over. Keeping his hands around her neck, he threw her to the floor, then climbed on top of her. As he held her down and choked her, she swung at his face, then tried to grip his hands. Worried she’d mark him or that his skin might end up embedded in her fingernails, he slammed her head against the tile floor until she went still.

He bent his head to her mouth. Still breathing. Now that she was unconscious he could kill her without injury to himself. After a few more minutes of squeezing, he checked her breathing and her pulse.

Finally dead. He’d killed four people. The two men he’d killed with his bare hands hadn’t taken as long as Katie to die. Who would’ve thought this little slip of a girl who’d treated her body like shit had that much fight in her?

He climbed off Katie, then opened the bedroom door. After he lifted her lifeless body in his arms, he carried her down the hall and into the dining room.

Harlan stared at Katie. “Is she…?”

“Yes,” he said, and laid her on top of the bags.

“Did she suffer?”

“No. From here on out, there will be no suffering.” He rested his hand on Harlan’s shoulder. “Especially for you.”

The Reverend picked up one of the pairs of latex gloves he’d left on the table, then handed the other to Harlan. “Put these on. I might need your help. Be prepared. What I’m about to do isn’t for the faint of heart,” he said, snapping on the gloves. “But I promise I’ll be quick.”

Before he’d come to Ochopee, Florida, his father had explained how to execute the ritual. Although the Reverend had been by his daddy’s side the three times they’d done the ceremony, he’d never done it himself. According to Daddy, how quick the process would go depended on whether he had the balls to cut the woman. Considering he’d had no problem choking the life out of her, he doubted he’d have a problem slicing her body.

Out of respect for Harlan, he shoved the girl’s tank top up, keeping her breasts covered. He picked up the knife, stabbed Katie in the stomach, then sliced her abdomen horizontally. When he moved the skin apart, making a larger, deeper cavity for him to use, Harlan gasped and turned away. “Almost finished, Harlan. Hang in there.”

Satisfied with what he’d done to Katie, he stepped away from her body and nodded to the container holding the snakes. After he instructed Harlan to open it, he bent, grabbed the largest, sickliest rattler by the head and yanked it from its temporary home without fear. “This is the most important part of the ritual,” he said. “Close the lid and come pray with me.”

Harlan did as he’d been instructed, then raised his hands in the air.

The Reverend held the malnourished rattlesnake over his head. “Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions,” he began, quoting Luke and forcing his voice to shake as if the power of God ran through him, “and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you.”

“Amen,” Harlan murmured.

Since he couldn’t remember what other bullshit prayers his daddy had used, he made up his own. His prayers assured Katie’s spirit would be free of the demons that had possessed her in this life, and reassured Harlan that God would forever look over him. When he finished, he told Harlan to open the container again. He set the rattler back inside, then quickly grabbed one of the baby rattlers his daddy had recommended he bring. Considering the snake he’d used for his prayer was about four feet long, there was no way in hell it’d fit in Katie’s belly.

After Harlan closed the lid again, locking the snakes inside, he stared at the skinny, one-foot rattlesnake he held. The young ones could release venom, and since this one was still healthy, it could cause him serious damage, should little bastard bite him. But at least it would fit.

The Reverend used his free hand to widen the slice along Katie’s belly, then shoved the snake’s head, along with the rest of its body, inside.

Keeping one hand over Katie’s stomach, which shifted slightly as the snake moved, he ordered Harlan to hand him the threaded needle. He pulled Katie’s skin together and began stitching. Her blood made the needle slippery, so he took his time in order to make sure he didn’t prick himself and leave any of his DNA behind.

When he finished, he released a deep sigh and looked to Harlan who had grown ashen. “You good?” he asked.

Harlan wiped a hand down his face. “Yeah, I’m good. I was just remembering what a sweet girl Katie used to be before the devil infested her soul.”

“She wasn’t that girl no more.” The Reverend took off his gloves. He placed them in one of the plastic freezer bags he’d brought with him, along with the needle, thread and knife. “The baby rattler in her belly represents the Devil. It’ll feed on the evil rotting Katie’s soul. Once the serpent is full, it’ll die and free Katie, sending her straight into God’s arms.” Hot damn, he was so good at this he almost believed his own bullshit. “Remember the good times and be thankful that she won’t suffer no more. Understand?”

Harlan met his gaze. “I do. So now what?”

Give me my money so I can get the hell out of here. My congregation is waiting for me.

He picked up a clean pair of gloves. “Now we get rid of her.”