On a steamy night in Central Park, a sailor returning from South Africa gets mugged. What the mugger doesn’t know is that the sailor is carrying a deadly black mamba—the most poisonous snake in the world. The sailor is murdered, the mugger is bitten, and the snake slithers off into the underbrush . . .
As city authorities rush to capture the snake, the populace desperately tries to stay out of its way in this fast-moving thrill ride with plenty of bite.
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The box was two feet long, a foot and a half wide, and a foot and a half deep. Its outside was plywood, its inside a lining of burlap stitched into cardboard. There were airholes drilled into the top and sides. Together with its contents, the box weighed sixteen pounds. For anyone less than Matt Olssen's size it would have been an unwieldy burden, but Matt carried it comfortably under his long arm.
Even so, a few times along the way it became a drag, and he was tempted to walk away from it. Once, without meaning to, he had actually forgotten it. By the time he got back to where he had left it, two characters had hefted it up onto the bar and were struggling with the knot in the blond sisal twine looped around its width. He had been half inclined to let them get a look at what was inside the box, but he had been warned that, although it would probably be lethargic, he wasn't to count on it; it might come out of the box like a shot. So he kicked ass, picked up the box, and moved along.
He had taken it — box and animal together — from some Greek or other in a poker game in Lourenço Marques (Maputo, they called it now, a no-class name) in exchange for a handful of markers in Malawi dollars, which was the funny-money they were playing for. The Greek claimed it was a rare specimen that he had bought at a bargain price from some nigger cop in Elisabethville who was said to have confiscated it in the bush country from another nigger, who had staked it out as a booby trap on a dark path in front of his brother-in-law's house, with intent to kill. It hadn't worked out. The brother-in-law had a flashlight and spotted it in time, and then hollered for the cops. Matt had accepted it, as an alternative to beating up on the Greek, with the notion of turning it loose in the downtown area of the city for laughs. But later, sobering up, he decided instead to bring it back to the States and try to sell it to a zoo. He stowed the box away under the bunk in his cabin, and aside from sprinkling some water through the airholes a few times, paid no attention to it on the ten-day voyage back from Africa.
His ship had docked in Brooklyn in early morning. By the time he had finished supervising the offloading it was noon, and 92 degrees, and he was nearly dehydrated. He cleaned up, put the box under his arm, and staggered to a waterfront joint a block away from the ship's berth. It wasn't until three o'clock that he remembered to phone his wife.
"Betty? It's me."
"What does that mean?"
"Well, you come and go, don't you?"
So it was going to be an uphill fight. Tuning his voice up to a little boy's sweet upper register, he said, "Baby, your little Mattsie is dying to see your beautiful face. You know?"
"Look, you bastard, don't come on with that cutie-pie act. You ask me if I know? I know."
"Hey, baby, be nice to me. I been six months at sea —"
"Six? I haven't heard from you in over a year."
"— and every single night when I turned in I dreamed about my beautiful Betty."
She snorted. "Well, dream on. I'm hanging up."
"Wait, no, I have to tell you something."
In the steaming phone booth he was pouring sweat and booze vapors. He glanced through the glass of the door at the box, standing on end near his bar stool. Nobody was paying any attention to it; he had promised to break the nose of any man who went near it.
"What you said about not hearing from me?" He wiped a rill of sweat off the side of his face with the phone. "I swear to Jesus Christ God I wrote you once a month like clockwork. Don't tell me you didn't get my letters."
"You lying bastard, I'm hanging up on you."
"You can't hang up on me. I'm your husband."
"In name only. I'm hanging up."
"I have to see you, Betty. God, how I missed you."
"I'm busy. I have to go now."
"No. Listen. ..." I know the way to your heart, you bitch, and to everything else, too. "I got something for you. A present."
She paused for a moment. "Well, if it's another dumb statue like last time, you know what you can do with it."
"Every port we made I worked my butt off, so I didn't even have time to buy you something." He smiled slyly into the transmitter. "So I'm just gonna have to give you cash instead. You mind, baby?"
Her voice came alive. "You're gonna give me money? How much?"
"Ah, don't let's spoil the surprise. But I'll give you a little hint. It's in the four figures."
"I could certainly use some money. You got no idea what it's like, just keeping up the apartment, and buy a few clothes once in a while."
"I would have mailed you money, like I promised, but these crummy ports, they would steal it right out of the envelope in the post office. I'll be over in an hour or two, soon as we're finished unloading the ship. Okay, sweetheart?"
"Well, okay. But don't get rolled or anything. I really have to have the money."
"See you in an hour, baby. Wear a see-through, willya?"
Ten hours later he had drunk better than a quart and a half of whiskey, spent almost three hundred dollars, and had two or three causeless fights. He had moved from joint to joint on a course that led in slow stages generally northward through Brooklyn, across the East River into Manhattan, and on up the West Side to Columbus Avenue in the Seventies. Now he was the last remaining customer in the dump, and the bartender had just shut off the air conditioner to chase him.
"You want me to go, tell me man-to-man to go, and I'll go," Matt said. "But don't lie the air conditioner broke down, you crumb."
"I don't want no more trouble with you," the bartender said. His right hand was under the bar, and he gave Matt a glimpse of a fat sawed-off bat. "Whyn't you just call it a night, sailor?"
"You crumb, if I felt like staying here I would make you turn it on again." He was pouring sweat again even though the air conditioner hadn't been off more than a couple of minutes. "But my dear little wife is waiting for me, and man, I got a terrific load saved up for her."
He heaved the box up on the bar, paid his bill, and threw the bartender a ten-dollar tip. The bartender mumbled his thanks and then, as if to underline his gratitude, pretended to be curious about the box. "What you really got in there, sailor?"
It was a question that had been put to him often during the long hours since he had left the docks. Depending on the variable temperature of his mood, his answer had been either "a little pussycat" or "none of your fucking business." In all cases he had made it evident, by virtue of his size and attitude and general air of recklessness, that the subject was closed. In the only instance when a questioner had persisted, Matt had grabbed him by the collar and run him out the door.
Now he simply winked at the bartender, hiked the box up under his arm, and went out into Columbus Avenue. The September heat had hardly relented since sundown, trapped by pavement and steel and concrete. Considering that it was nearly 2 A.M., there were a surprising number of people on the streets. In front of him, a couple slouched along with their arms clasped limply around each other's waist. Across the street, a man and two women were standing at the curb singing. Before him, a young man, barechested, wearing floppy shorts, bore down toward him on a collision course but sheered off at the last moment. A few cars were heading south, their headlights bouncing on the ragged road. Here and there, above the street, people leaned out of darkened windows, their arms and elbows cradled on pillows on the sills, trying to distill some refreshment out of the hot moist air.
He turned east toward Central Park, his gait rolling, part swagger, part stagger. The street was dark, with almost every other one of its lamppost lights shattered. The curbs were lined with garbage, some in plastic bags, some simply strewn. A few windows were dimly lit, and there were sounds of voices or music drifting into the street. Near the end of the block, a cluster of Hispanics sitting on a stoop, wearing shorts and nightgowns, laughed at him and called out insults. He stopped, and challenged them to come down off the stoop and fight, the whole lot of them, men, women, children, and knives. They laughed, and saluted him with their beer cans.
He told them that they were a bunch of dirty cabrones, putas, and bastardos, and when they applauded his command of their language, he bowed to them and moved on. He wasn't ignorant of the streets of New York — and of Rio and Genoa and Marseilles and a hundred other ports — but they held no terrors for him. He knew that his size was intimidating; and if it failed to intimidate, he was ready to fight, confidently and with enjoyment.
At Central Park West he checked the street sign and looked at the building on the corner in bafflement. From the lobby, a uniformed doorman looked out at him cautiously. He checked the street sign and the building number again. Dumb ass. She lived east, the other side of the park. He set the box down near the curb and waved his arms wildly at an approaching cab. The cab slowed and stopped, then suddenly shot off. Matt took a wild swing at the trunk of the car as it went by. In the next five minutes two more cabs passed him up.
He glared into the street, cursing loudly. But he knew what the problem was — the yellow bastards were scared of him. He was wearing what he called his "shore uniform." He had begun to put it on, item by item, at that dockside joint in Brooklyn and now, fifteen hours later, he was fully dressed. There was a footprint on the crown of his white nautical cap, and the yellow braid on the black bill was hanging by a couple of threads. A sleeve of the white linen jacket was separated at the shoulder. The T-shirt beneath it was grimy and soaked with sweat and spilled drinks. The duck pants were filthy and ripped at one knee. He had a smear of dried blood at the corner of his mouth from a cut lip, another smear on the lapel of the linen jacket, and spatters on his white shoes.
Like his size, his shore uniform proclaimed a violent man, and it was forbidding.
A cab stopped for a red light on the north corner of the street. Matt picked up the box and ran toward it. The driver watched him for a moment through the windshield, then put his car in gear and shot the light.
"Fuck it. Fuck you all, cabrones," Matt yelled.
He tipped the leading edge of the box forward and shook it for balance, and the animal slid drily inside.
"Don't get restless, pussycat," Matt said. "Relax and you'll live longer."
He tucked the box securely under his arm and crossed the street toward the park.
* * *
Torres, sitting on a bench backed against the stone retaining wall that bordered the park, watched with sour lack of interest as the big sailor tried to get a cab. But he came alive as the sailor started crossing over to the park side of the street. When the sailor hitched up the box he was carrying, and started walking north, Torres had to talk to himself to keep from running after the guy and jumping him right then and there.
"Wai', stupid, see what he gonna do."
When the sailor was fifty or sixty feet up the street, Torres eased off the bench and began tailing him, walking close to the retaining wall, so he could crouch against it if the guy looked back. But the sailor didn't turn around. He stopped once, and looked across the street at the Museum of Natural History, but only for a second. He kept walking north, and a couple of times he paused and looked toward the park, as if he was thinking of going in.
"I'll wait if you promise to go inna park," Torres said softly. "You wanna know how to go in? Transverse coming up on Eighty-first."
The sailor was a giant and looked tough — he carried that box under his arm like it was a feather — and Torres realized that it would be risky to tackle him one-on-one, but he was desperate for a score. The way the weather was, people were wearing hardly any clothes, and they didn't have noplace to carry their money so they left it home. That was what had happened the last two times, and he got mad the second time and pistol-whipped the score real good. But pistol-whipping didn't put no money in the bank.
So he knew he wasn't going to let the sailor's size or anything else stop him. Besides, the way the sailor was walking he looked pretty drunk. Torres made up his mind. Even if the sailor went past the transverse without going in, he was gonna hit him anyway. There wasn't nobody walking on Central Park West, and only a few cars, mostly cabs, and no goddamn cab driver was gonna stop if he saw somebody being worked over, unless it was one of those moonlighting cops that drove a hack, and even then he might look the other way. Still, it was dangerous.
The sailor stopped at 81st Street, at the entrance to the transverse.
"Go in," Torres said. "Go inna park, you stupid fuck. It's bullshit what you hear about danger. Ain't no danger, it's real safe, anybody can walk through and be safe. Don't be afrai', go on, walk inna park." But the big guy crossed the street past the transverse opening. "Aw ri'," Torres said, "aw ri', I'm gonna do it to you anyway."
The sailor stopped again. Torres held his breath. The sailor was turned toward the pedestrian entrance, a broad entry between two squat pillars. Better than the transverse, Torres thought, no cars, no nothing. Go on, go in, man, he pleaded silently, and in an agony of wishing used body english, like with a pinball machine, to get the sailor to turn into the park.
It worked. The sailor turned into the entrance, and as he hurried after him, Torres said, "Beautiful. Thank you, God."
He touched the short-barreled .38 he carried in his belt under his loose shirt.
* * *
A short while after he began walking through the park, Matt Olssen realized he should have gone through the transverse, which would have taken him on a direct line to the east side. Here, the walkways branched and wound, and he would have to use a little navigation to keep from wandering in circles. Well, he was a sailor, wasn't he? Steer by the stars. He looked up. The sky was overcast, with a reddish tint, and there wasn't a star in sight. He thought for a second of going back, of trying to retrace his steps to the entrance and then taking the transverse, but it seemed like too much trouble. Screw it. At least the park smelled a little better than outside.
As for little Betty, she'd wait no matter how long it took him. Expecting money, she'd wait all night, and then some. Little Betty. He smiled, envisioning her in the apartment, probably fallen asleep, lying on her back in the air-conditioned bedroom in her see-through. He would have to lean on the bell to wake her up, and she'd be pissed off, but not fatally, because she would be thinking about the money he had promised her. He would take a nice slow shower — maybe get her to take it with him — and then into the kip. When she wanted to, Betty could fuck up a storm, and with the prospect of money she had the incentive.
Except for the sound of his own footsteps on the pavement, the park was silent. If there was anybody else around, they were keeping real quiet about it. He knew you weren't supposed to walk in the park after dark, but it didn't bother him. Any mugger got a good look at him he'd probably run away and hide. And if he didn't, well, another fight was just another fight, and he'd bust the sonofabitch up good.
There was motion in the box. He reached around with his free hand and tapped the cover sharply. "Lie still, pussycat."
He tilted the box back and forth a few times. The movement inside became briefly agitated and then subsided.
* * *
It was clear to Torres that the sailor didn't know what the hell he was doing. First he went to the left, toward the kids' playground, then wound around back to the main path, heading east. He never once looked behind him, or even to the right or left. Nice sailor, Torres thought, you gonna win the medal for easiest score of the year. He let the guy get out of sight a few times, laying back, knowing that when the curving walkway straightened out, he would be there. No hurry. Let him get nice and deep inside the park.
No way of losing him. Even if he got invisible in the shadows once in a while, it was easy to pick him up again when he passed into the light of the streetlamps every few hundred feet.
When the sailor lurched across the West Drive, Torres whispered to himself, "Watch yourself, stupid, don't get hit by no car." The sailor crossed the roadway safely, and after a while Torres followed. When he saw him again, the sailor was stopped, facing to his right, toward the path that climbed up to the Belvedere Castle. "Hey, that's a good one, nice and lonesome up there," Torres whispered.
But the sailor turned away and went straight on. Ahead, on the right, was the Delacorte Theatre, and on the left the Great Lawn, with the baseball backstops sticking up and the patterned dirt infields, stretching north for about four city blocks. The sailor moved on past the big round theater without even looking at it.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Snake"
Copyright © 2013 John Godey.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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