"The Snake in the Tower"
The Snake in the Tower
By George C. Chesbro
Copyright © 2004, George C. Chesbro
First appearance: Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, March, 1969.

The glass door opened hard and Burt Abele shivered as he passed into the steamy heat which kept at bay the winter cold on 8th Avenue, The sudden warmth flushed his face and stirred the alcohol in his stomach. There was a heavy odor of cooking hamburger and onion.

It was always the same, day after night after day. Go to work on that cursed elevator; up down, up down. Leave work, drink, eat, go home and sleep, wake up furry-mouthed, go to work; MOVE DIRECTLY TO JAIL DO NOT PASS GO; up, down up, down.

Only the weekends were different. Then Burt would drink all the time to kill the feeling, slow the hours leading relentlessly forward to Monday when the mechanical jaws of the elevator would fold him back into his own personal hell.

At thirty-one, he was too young to be caught in this vise, Burt believed. Always there was the taste of stale beer in his mouth. Life must be more. But what to do? Of course he could always "pull a muscle" and go on welfare or live off workmen's compensation but then there'd be nothing else to do anyway and he'd only drink more; and more. Burt was not stupid; he was better off working.

"Two with onions," Burt muttered thickly, raising his fingers. "Black coffee and a side of potatoes."

That'd fix him up. Go to sleep on a full stomach so he could go up-down in the morning and not be sick.

Abele folded his napkin into intricate patterns and looked about him at the other patrons. What did they do? Were they, too, dying inside? Of course they'd never tell, even if they were; people don't talk about such things.

The White Tower was fairly crowded and there was but one man, a boy really, behind the counter that Burt judged to be no older than eighteen or nineteen. Freckled, with flaming red hair, the boy moved easily and casually from customer to grill and then back to customer, obviously in no hurry.

Maybe he should get a job like that, Burt considered; no up or down, just back and forth. But where was the difference? The boy's pale face and dull, clouded eyes told him there was none; it was all deadly monotony, eating bit by bit, day by day, into the sharp edges of a man's soul. He wished he had the guts right now to get up and walk out to the street. He could hitch a ride, flag a bus, ride a train, keep going for a long, long time, but somehow Burt knew it would make no difference. Life's a disease of lengthy duration but a disease nonetheless; first the mind goes, then the body.

A distraught mother on his right struggled to cope with her two excited children. A large collection of badges, balloons and peanut shells indicated there had been a visit to the circus holding forth in Madison Square Garden, a few blocks away. Burt stared, remembering times long past when he too had been pushed to the heights of ecstasy by leaping men and painted clowns and he too, like these children, had spun and spun on his stool and demanded more candy. Now it was just up down drink sleep up....

How does a person change his life?

He was a prisoner of the city, the great mirror that reflected and magnified his own boredom and frustration. But what does one do? The day of the covered wagons is past and neon light blasts into both oceans.

Next to Burt, also on his right, was a small, bookish man with a crumpled brown suit and glasses with very thick lenses. The man had just finished a large piece of pie and was now rounding up all the flakes and crumbs, pressing them into the tines of his fork and transferring them to his mouth.

The coffee came, hot on his tongue, acid in his stomach. Where were the hamburgers? The red-haired boy was very slow; back and forth, back and forth.

The young couple on Burt's left got up and left amidst a spatter of giggles. Their fingers groped and intertwined. How long had it been since he had had a woman? A nice woman? Updown, backforth.

Farther down, near the door, Burt spotted a young woman, good-looking but heavily made up, with garish black net stockings showing beneath the hem of her very long, wool coat. Probably a go-go girl from one of the bars nearby. Burt smiled to himself. Here was a girl with an even worse problem; up and down, back and forth, around and around with a bunch of lushes watching her to boot, all wanting the same thing as if she were some kind of object or piece of merchandise. At least he didn't have anybody watching him. He was left alone to do his dying each day.

The hamburgers came and they tasted good. Maybe the red-haired kid had a little book explaining in detail just how to prepare each item of food. Except the coffee; that was still acid.

A man entered, carrying a large, closed basket under his arm. Burt stared hard. Another one from the circus, he decided; this one, a performer of some kind. The man sat two seats away from Burt, placing the basket on the empty stool between them. The man was dark-skinned, with very thin, compressed lips, complemented by a thin, angular nose. There was strength in the man's face. He wore a well-fitted, neatly pressed suit and yet he looked slightly uncomfortable, as if he were used to another form of dress. His hands were folded in front of him as he waited patiently for the red-haired boy to take notice of him.

Burt's gaze swept down past the wooden basket and then shot back again. His eyes stayed riveted on the dark cane and the white letters on the crimson label. He felt a little chill along his spine.

"Hey," Burt said, waving his fingers at the dark-skinned man, "you really got a snake in there?"

The snake-man turned slowly and smiled. In a voice very soft and deep, like the lead in a movie, he said, "Yes, but it can't hurt you."

"A king cobra?"

The snake-man smiled again. "The basket is secured very tightly," he said, lightly shaking the container. "You see? You have nothing to fear."

"I wasn't afraid," Burt said, somewhat surprised to find it was the truth. "It's just that it gives a person a pretty weird feeling sitting next to something like that."

The man nodded, and Burt pushed away the remains of his hamburgers and lit a cigarette to smoke while drinking the rest of his coffee. The go-go girl brushed past him, apparently on her way to make a call in one of the booths at the rear near the mother and her children. Burt wondered how the girl would react if she knew she had just passed within a few inches of a cobra---of death. People never considered things like that; just up and down, back and forth, around and around, hurrying toward nothing.

Funny, Burt realized, how that snake made him feel more alive. He dragged heavily on his cigarette and thought about that; weird. The coffee was cold and normally he would have left by now, but this sensation was too new, too heady, to walk away from so quickly. He was completely sober and had not felt so aware in days, weeks . . . months. There was no longer any thought of up and down. His cigarette tasted sharp and exhilarating; the lights were lighter and he heard things more clearly. There was a snake a few inches away from his thigh and that snake could end all updown, backforth, forever. Funny how he should need the presence of death to make him feel more alive.

"How come that thing isn't locked up someplace?" Burt asked, immediately feeling foolish. He was glad the man had brought the snake.

The snake-man turned and smiled as before. Everything about this man was graceful, hinting at speed and power; perhaps like his snakes. "I am with the circus," he said. "Our contract stipulates that poisonous snakes must be with a handler at all time. There is no danger, I can assure you."

"Oh, I don't mind," Burt said quickly. "I was just curious."

What happened next blended instantly with time and space, crippling the normal process of careful reasoning, throwing each person back on the ancient reserves of instinct. As sometimes happens with the best of mothers, the woman in the back had reached the end of her patience. There was a sharp crack of flesh against flesh as the young boy screamed and leaped back, crashing into Burt, who was unable to avoid brushing the wooden basket which fell to the floor with a startling, fearsome crash.

Burt shot back hard off his stool, backing into the go-go girl who had finished her call and was returning to her seat. She was yelling something in his ear but Burt remained standing, his arms held out to his sides, blocking her passage, his eyes riveted to the spot on the floor where the basket had landed.

"Wait!" Burt commanded, tensing the muscles in his arms.

The snake-man had risen. "It is nothing," he said, reaching down for the basket.

"Wait!" Burt said again, this time extending one arm out toward the snake-man and consequently saving his life.

From where he was standing, the snake-man might never have seen the flat, green-brown head, the flicking tongue or the cold, lidless eyes that slowly emerged from the hole in the basket which had smashed on impact with the floor. Slowly---inch by inch, foot by foot---the king cobra slid out into the middle of the tile floor. People scattered in all directions; those in the front crushed through the single glass door, while those behind Burt squeezed back, in and around the phone booths.

"What the---" came from the red-haired back-and-forth boy from behind the counter. His face was even paler than before but there was more teen-age incredulity in his voice than fear. Nothing like this had ever happened in a White Tower before.

"Why that's a king cobra!" the bookish man was saying, dropping his fork and sending the light crumbs and flakes floating to the floor. “A cobra!” The go-go girl was clutching at Burt's coat and shouting a hysterical torrent of obscenities. He felt himself being pushed forward and braced hard on his front foot, all the time keeping his arms extended wide, never taking his eyes from the thick, eight-foot ribbon of death a few feet away.

"Please be quiet," the snake-man said. "It's very important that all of you be quiet."

The snake-man had frozen when he had seen the snake emerge from the basket, only inches from his outstretched hand. Now he slowly straightened and backed against the counter, shallow breathing the only sign of his agitation; his face was expressionless. One man near the front who had stood rooted to the spot, paralyzed by fear, now uttered a cry and bolted for the door.

"Get help," the snake-man said, raising an arm in the man's direction but not taking his eyes from the snake. "Call the police and tell them what happened. They'll know who to call."

Burt could hear the mother's sobbing in the rear, sharp and crackling in the heavy air. The snake swayed and began to rise, the back of its head and neck swelling like a thick rubber bag.

"Please stop that crying," the snake-man said, his voice a soft but urgent demand. "And do not move, any of you. Frieda is extremely dangerous and will attack if you make her nervous. Please stay very still." The snake-man started slowly making his way toward the cobra, removing his jacket as he did so and holding it out in front of him, waving it slowly back and forth, circling around, never taking his eyes from those of the snake.

"You can put your arms down now, buster," the go-go girl said, her voice a whisper. "I'm sure as hell not going anywhere near that monster."

Burt lowered his arms and breathed easier. At least the snake-man looked like he knew what he was doing as he continued to circle the reptile, never varying his easy, rhythmic motion. The cobra was still raised up but there was no longer any swelling at the back of the head. The snake seemed mesmerized by the man's actions. Now, if the snake-man could only keep it that way until some kind of help arrived. Why was it taking so long for someone to get here ? Was it possible the man, once free of danger, had simply gone home, dismissing the matter as someone else's bad luck? Impossible! But the thought kept coming back, and Burt felt cold.

"How---how dangerous is it?" the mother asked in a quivering voice.

"Very," the bookish man said. "The venom of a cobra acts directly upon the nervous system. Death comes in seconds. There's almost nothing one can do...."

"Can't you do something?" the go-go girl said to the red-haired boy, who had stopped going back and forth and was half-crouched behind the counter. "We're trapped here, and that thing could kill us."

The red-haired boy ducked down behind the counter and resurfaced with a heavy, bone-handled meat cleaver in his hand. The voice of the snake-man came at them again, soft but very strained.

"I asked you not to move."

"What's the matter with you!" the go-go girl screamed. "Is that thing more important to you than our lives? Kill it!"

The spell over the snake had been broken. The movement and the sharp static of voices had distracted the reptile from the carefully planned, rhythmic movements of the snake-man. The flat head soared high as the hood swelled and there was a sharp hiss.

"That's how they strike!" the bookish man said, his voice muffled by the hand over his mouth.

Burt stared wide-eyed and remembered something he had read about cobras lunging forward, rather than striking from a coiled position like a rattlesnake. That made them a bit slower, which was an advantage, however slight.

The snake hissed again just before the head sailed through the air toward the snake-man, who stepped nimbly aside. The snake reared back again, but now the snake-man was weaving slowly and the reptile began rocking back and forth as the fangs retracted and the hood relaxed. The snake-man's shirt and slacks were spotted with cobra venom as the mother stifled a scream deep in her throat and the go-go girl shrieked nervously. It seemed to Burt that they were in a glass sphere whirling through space a thousand miles an hour, yet everything was very, very real.

"It is most important that you follow my instructions," the snake-man said, his voice betraying no more than a slight annoyance at the mistake that had almost cost him his life. "Cobras have been known to stalk and attack. If Frieda decides to come toward you I know no way of stopping her. As far as killing her is concerned, it is true that Frieda is a valuable animal. However, that is not the question here. The slightest scratch from her fangs means death. If she is to be killed before she bites her attacker, the head must be sliced off. Who is willing to come that close? No one? In that case, please remain still."

This is insane, Burt thought. Death crawled only a few feet from them, ready to strike; and a few feet further away stood at least a hundred people, their noses pressed to the protective barrier of glass, watching the drama within. He and the snake-man and the bookish man and the mother and the children and the go-go girl might have been no more than a Christmas display on Fifth Avenue.

But they were not; they were people and they were in very real danger.

Outside, children were jumping up and down, back and forth, pushing around and around trying to get a better look. Insane! This was New York City and not some jungle in India....

What was it he had read about ten thousand Indians dying each year from snakebite? That had never meant much to him; a statistic buried in the newspaper amidst a hundred other statistics whirred and lighted and coughed by some chromed computer somewhere. Now it meant something. Now ... Burt could see a small, frail, brown-skinned man clad, perhaps, only in a loin cloth, hurrying along some jungle path or traversing the outskirts of a city, hurrying to get home where his wife and children would be waiting with love and something cool to drink. There is a sudden, stabbing pain in the soft calf of his leg and the man looks down, terror already clawing at his stomach, to see a cobra glide away through the tall grass. The man sits alone in the middle of the path and waits for death that he knows will be soon and is inevitable; already he is having trouble drawing breath and he wishes his life had not had to end so soon but it has....

There they are with their noses pressed against the glass and children jumping . . . Those idiots!

The snake-man was circling closer and closer. Why hadn't help come? The presence of death; everything is magnified, amplified, salted, sautéed in the life juices of the man who wants desperately to see once again the warmth of the sun on his face and knows he may not. Burt wanted to go home that night and smoke the cigarettes, curse the traffic lights....

"Jamie!" The mother's scream pierced through the glass windows, and the children stopped jumping as a hundred pairs of eyes stared in terror and there were answering screams. Too late Burt caught a glimpse of the boy rushing past. The snake's head jerked back; venom dripped from the exposed fangs and the sound of hissing filled the Tower.

What Burt did next was instinctive and, in the years ahead, years filled with a new sense of life and awareness, he would look back upon that one instant in time and reflect and be proud that he had never really stopped to think about what he had done. He had acted, and in that acceptance of death he had found the key to life.

Burt left his feet and flew through the air, his arm extended full length, his hand reaching for the head of the snake that was already arcing through the air toward the fear-paralyzed body of the boy. There was but an instant of pain and a swelling, numbing sensation in his hand as the snake's fangs sliced through the flesh of his hand, and Burt Abele fell unconscious on the cold tile of the Tower, the snake pinned beneath him.

It was instinct, too, and the reserves of courage that propelled the red-haired boy through the air, over the counter, the meat-cleaver held high over his head.

Instantly, the snake-man clutched the gushing stump of Burt's wrist in a vise-like grip and pushed the thrashing, headless carcass of the cobra aside. Then, to be heard above the screaming, milling, up-down throng of people running back and forth, around and around on the stained concrete of the sidewalk outside, he yelled, "He will live! He will live!"

Copyright © 2004, Hunter Goatley. All rights reserved.
Last updated 6-DEC-2004 22:58:44.88.