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ARTHUR LEO ZAGAT

WHEN A SNAKE STRIKES

Cover

RGL e-Book Cover


Ex Libris

First published in Detective Tales, Feb 1937

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version date: 2020-02-17
Produced by Matthias Kaether and Roy Glashan

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Cover

Detective Tales, Feb 1937, with "When a Snake Strikes"



Illustration

There was the rattle of a machinegun...



It was the chance Jim Boland had been waiting for, the chance to get Maisie for his own—and all he had to do was to betray his companion-in-arms, Detective Dan Casten, to sudden and inescapable death!




THE trusty turned from counting the long wooden boxes held on the truckbed by sturdy poles stuck into holes in its rim. "Forty cases of street-cleaning brushes," he said. "Check." He held up the receipt form clipped onto a metal board and Hen Grady signed it. The truck motor roared into thunderous life.

"Hey," Grady yelled to a burly, uniformed guard who had one hand on the unlocking lever of a rivet-studded, tremendous door in a looming wall of grey stone. "Open up! Gonna keep me here all day?"

The keeper grinned. "Yuh watch yer step or we'll be keeping yuh here for more than all day." Habit caused him to put his left hand on the butt of the gun in his belt, as his right threw over the lever. The door opened, silent on well-oiled hinges, and Grady let in his clutch.

"Swell chance," he jeered down from his perch as it lumbered past the keeper.

The cool dark of the tunnel through the penitentiary wall momentarily folded around him, and then he was out in the morning sun that was hot and white on the highway. He hunched, heeling the gas button down to the floorboards. It was too early yet for any traffic, the state insignia on his license plates would keep the cops from bothering him, and he could make real speed. He'd have his load delivered and be home in time to play a half-hour with the baby.

Seeing them poor dubs in the big house made a fellow know how lucky he was to be free. The road curved into green dimness of the state forest. Grady pulled the fragrance of the pines into his deep chest. It was great to be alive! It was...

Something clamped on his throat, cutting off his breath! Grady tore at it with hands suddenly terrified. It was an arm. He couldn't move it. The truck lurched, rocketing without guidance through deserted darkness. Agony shot through Grady's laboring lungs. The seat-back dug excruciatingly into his spine. Then nothing...

A figure, thin and lithe despite its clumsy convict garb, slithered over the back of the rocking seat, grabbed for the brake handle. The truck jolted to a stop, its front wheels in a ditch, its front bumper inches from the shaggy bark of a gigantic tree.

Breath hissed from between thin, colorless lips, and black flame glinted in beady eyes. The convict twisted to Grady's flaccid form. Pallid fingers, slim and cruel, fastened on a throat in which life still pulsed—tightened relentlessly.

The killer's ears were small, close-set behind cheek-bones that were curiously too wide for his small mouth and sharp chin. His face was a flat triangle, utterly still, yet informed with a cold evil, somehow reptilian. It had given him his name. Snake Wayne, in the underworld that envied and feared him. Perhaps it had given him his nature: shrewd, malign, treacherous.

Some crooks work alone by preference. Wayne's crimes had been solitary because no one dared to work with him. When he needed aid he had obtained it by the one method he knew—terror.

There was no longer any pulse under the strangling fingers.

Wayne moved deftly, with the swift sureness of a plan worked out to the minutest detail. In an incredibly brief time he had exchanged clothing with the truck driver, had stuffed the corpse into the long box out of which he had noiselessly crept, had replaced its lid, fitting its nails into holes carefully just too big for them. There had been the chance that the case would be put on the bottom of the pile. There had been other chances against the success of his scheme. But there had been none that Wayne by any possible foresight could have guarded against.

The truck lurched into motion again. Snake Wayne had gambled against insuperable odds, and thus far he had won. From somewhere in his distorted soul came the assurance that he would keep on winning.


"WASN'T that some feed, Jim?"

Dan leaned back in his chair, thick thumbs in the armholes of his vest thrusting out the gold badge pinned on it, his dark eyes half-closed and gloating. "Now you know what you missed when Maisie picked me instead of you."

"I didn't need to sample her cookin' to know that." Jim Boland made his lips smile, but underneath the tablecloth his gnarled fingers rounded, as though they clutched a neck.

"Daniel Casten!" Maisie protested, her cheeks darkening with a flush under the misty fuzz the overhead light made golden. "You're mean, teasing Jim like that!"

She was leaning past her big-boned detective husband to clear the table. Her tawny curls didn't come much higher than his tousled, carroty mop, but the curves of her little body were tantalizing, heating Boland's blood.

"You wouldn't talk like that if you knew how near it was the other way around. If it had been Jim instead of you that Snake Wayne's bullets put in the hospital..."

"You're a little liar!" Dan chuckled. His arm slid around her slim waist, his other hand pulled her face down to his with rough tenderness.

Boland's clawed fingers crunched into windpipe gristle... "And this is to prove it." Casten's chuckle was muffled by the lips crushed against his own.

"Stop it. Da..." Maisie jerked away, her elbow hitting a water glass, knocking it over. "Now look what you've done!" Her tiny features crinkled with dismay as she looked at a cigarette package the cascading water had soaked. "The only pack in the house, and me dying for a smoke."

"Hell! Jim's always got a deck. Jim! Pay for your supper with a butt."

"Sure." Boland was thanking God that his years on the force had taught him the trick of keeping his countenance utterly expressionless no matter what emotions boiled behind it. "Sure thing."

He rose, strode to the chair on whose back he had hung his jacket and his gun, reached down into a side-pocket of the coat. He touched a full paper packet, grunted. "The devil! This is one time I ain't got a pack. I'll go downstairs and get one."

"No. Dan will go." A little muscle twitched at the corner of Boland's mouth. "Dan," Maisie's voice was sharp. "You're the host."

"Host to my side-kick." Casten chuckled. "The boys at the precinct should hear that." He unfolded his loose-coupled body. "All right, chicken. Whatever you say goes." He lumbered out, still chuckling.


THE door slammed behind him, leaving the others alone together for the first time since Maisie had come out of the hospital room and told Jim Boland that she and Dan...

Boland whirled around. "Kid!" he exclaimed hoarsely. "You spoiled them cigs on purpose. You wanted to get him out o' here."

"Yes," the girl whispered, coming around the table. "Yes. I wanted..."

"This!" Boland's lurch closed the space between them. Her soft body, pressed against his was a fiery spark to the blazing fire that leaped within him. His lips seethed greedily along satin, hot skin; found moist lips that answered his avid kiss... And abruptly hardened, flattening against hard teeth behind them. The form in Boland's hold was rigid, was straining away. Small fists beat against his chest.

"N-o-o-o," Maisie moaned. "He's my husband, Jim. Dan's my husband and your buddy. It's wrong." She broke from the circle of his arms that could have held her, that could have broken her in half, except for the stunned weakness of their surprise. "We have no right." She reeled against the table-edge, her hands flung back behind her for support.

The motion tightened her sheer frock against her heaving bosom, so that there was no concealment at all, and Jim Boland shivered, breathing hard. "You said..." he started and couldn't finish because his throat was too dry.

"I said that it was only my seeing him so weak, so helpless, that made me decide between you." It was the woman, it always is the woman, who first recovered. "But I did decide, and I married him and as long as I am his wife you must not—But Dan will be right back and I did want to talk to you alone. I'm frightened, Jim. I'm scared."

"Scared?" Boland repeated, thickly, trying to stop the dizzy swirl inside his skull, trying to make out why Maisie was suddenly pale, her pupils dilated, dark with some lurking fear.

"Jim! The newspaper came while you two were washing up in the bathroom. I hid it."

"The paper—?"

"Snake Wayne's loose. He's escaped from the pen. His picture was in the paper, the one they took at the station gate when they were taking him away. When he said, 'I'm coming back, and when I come, you two go.' He said that to you and Dan. Take care of Dan for me, Jim. Take care of him. Don't let Snake..." She twisted around, grabbed up a couple of plates.

"Hey Jim!" Dan yelled, ploughing through the door, the rattle of whose knob had warned Maisie he was back. "Jim! Wayne's out. Look!" He thrust a newspaper at Boland. "Slickest escape ever worked at the big house. Let's get going."

"Where?" Maise spund around, the plates still in her hand. "Where are you going, Dan?" She was talking to her husband but her eyes were tugging at Boland's eyes, and they were wide, pleading.

"To get the son—ump," Casten was buckling on his shoulder-holster, was jerking on his coat. "There's a five grand reward out on him already, hon. Half o' that'll buy you a lot o' them new dresses you been pesterin' me about, and Jim can get him a sweetie and a flat with the other half."

"Be careful, Dannie boy." Maisie's voice was tortured. "Oh, be careful, both of you."

"Careful hell! It's Wayne who's got to be careful with the force's two best dicks gunning for him." Dan's bear-hug swept the girl off her feet. He took the long kiss Jim Boland would have given his right arm for, set her down again. "Come on, Jim."

Boland glanced back as he went out the door. Maisie was white-faced, rigid. The back of her hand trembled against the lips that had been so hot, so sweet against his for a moment and then had gone hard.


MUSH MARTIN was a slinking shadow among the fetid shadows of the tenement house backyard. He hugged a newspaper-wrapped package to his scrawny breast, and his scrawny little soul still quivered with his narrow escape. The cop on the corner had looked cross-eyed at him, had moved toward him as if to ask what he had in the bundle. If them taxicabs hadn't crashed, just then...

Hell! S'posen the cop had glommed the loot, what then? Jim Boland woulda got Mush out o' the jam, wouldn't he? Big Jim stuck by his stoolies.

Nevertheless the sneak thief's grimy fingers trembled as he pulled loose a board in a leaning, rotted fence. He crawled through the hole, slid noiselessly across a second yard, climbed atop a rubbish-filled barrel, and swung himself up to a rusty fire-escape landing.

He crouched against a lightless window, listening. Mush Martin might have an in with the cops but he wasn't takin' no chances on lettin' nobody know his hang-out. Some day he was goin' to pull off a real job, and then he'd need a hideout bad.

Gees! What was the matter wit' him? He was scared to push up the winder. Scared to go into his own room—Cripes! He'd been scared stiff all day, ever since the guy at the paper stand had read to him that the Snake had crashed outta the Big House. Nerts! How could Wayne know it was him had tipped off Big Jim ?

Martin got the window up, slipped over its sill into muggy, sweat-stinking darkness, turned to pull the sash down again... And froze... A scream tearing at his throat—tearing his windpipe to pieces but not making any sound. Something glimmered in the glass, a pale reflection behind the reflection of his face, lit by skyglow.

"Still, squealer," hissed in Martin's ear, and a cold point pricked the back of his neck. "Still or it slides in."

The thing in the window was plainer. It was a pallid face, triangular and terrible as the head of a gigantic snake. Of Snake Wayne.

"S-s-quealer—," Martin jittered. "I—I—ain't no..."

The knife-point pricked deeper, emphasizing the "Shut up!" Wayne whispered, "Don't try to lie to me. I know." Martin didn't say anything, couldn't have if he'd dared try, but inside his skull terror shrieked, shrill and horrible. "I ought to carve you, little bit by little bit." He'd do it! He'd do it and have a swell time doing it. "If I didn't need you for something."

"What...?" Martin gasped. "I'll do anythin'."

"Right you'll do anything. Listen..." A voice hissed, whispering in the darkness.


TWO pairs of thick-soled cop's shoes thudded on the slimy sidewalk of a pushcart-lined slum street.

"Hell!" Dan Casten grunted. "He didn't have the guts to come back to the city. We'd have got track of him by now if he had. Someone would have seen him."

"Maybe they did. Maybe they're keepin' mum." Jim Boland's eyes probed into doorways, flitted over faces that passed, looked everywhere but at his partner. "Maybe they're scared to talk."

"Scared! That's just it. I'd know if they were scared. They'd clam up, but they wouldn't fool me." Dan's hamlike hands fisted. "And by Jupiter, I'd beat it out of..."

"Hey!" Boland interrupted. "I just saw Mush Martin duck into an alley across the street. He looked like he don't want to see me, like he knows something he don't want to tell me. He won't talk to two—Wait here." He darted away.

Casten looked after him, his brow furrowing. "There's something wrong with old Jim tonight," he muttered. "I wonder if he's losing his nerve."

Boland's feet pounded across cobbles, then across sidewalk smoothness. He went into the black mouth of an alley. His flashlight beam shot out, pinned a scrawny, scared-looking figure against rain-streaked brick.

"C'm here," Jim growled. His hand shot out, fastened on Mush's lapels, pulling them together, half-choking him. "I want to talk to you."

"What—what d'ya want?" Martin whined. "I ain't done nothin'. I don' know nothin'."

"Where's Snake Wayne holed up?"

"I don' know."

"You're lying!" Boland's fist jerked, thumping the stoolie's head against the brick. "And I'll spill your brains for it." Thump. "Talk, quick." Thump.

Martin's claws scrabbled at the arm that held him. "Don't," he squealed. "Yer hurtin' me."

Boland's visage was grim, his eyes bleak. "Talk, or I'll take you in and really work on you in the backroom at the house. Where's," thump, "Snake," thump, "Wayne?" Thump. "And if that don't work I'll send you up the river." THUMP!

"Oh Gawd! He'll kill me..."

"So you do know! Spill it, quick, or Wayne won't have a chance to kill you."

"Cripes! Yeh'll pertec' me, Jim. Yeh'll..."

"Sure. Where is he?"

"Ma Fulton's roomin' house. First floor, rear. An'—an' listen. He's dug up a tommy-gun. He's got it aimed out t'rough de door." Martin talked eagerly now, his words tumbling over each other. It was evident to Boland that he knew his only safety lay in Wayne's capture or death. "It's sure death fer any cop goes down the hall."

"Yeah! Maybe he'll blast one or two, but he can't blast a squad..."

"No. Wait. Yeh'll have ter split the five g's reward twenty ways if yeh calls out a squad. Will yer gimme a century if I tells yer how jest yeh an' yer side-kick kin take him wit'out no help?"

"All right. A century."

"Lissen. There's a fire escape outside his winder. Yeh kin climb up to it on a barrel underneath an' hop him before he knows what's comin' off."

Boland's eyes narrowed. "You're not kidding me, are you? Because if you are—How do you know so much?"

"I been tailin' him. I t'ought mebbe he knowed I ratted—"

"All right. That's enough." Boland's torch snapped off... and his fist lashed against Martin's chin. The sneak-thief dropped, knocked out. "That'll keep you safe," Jim muttered. "By the time you wake up we'll have Wayne." He whirled around, plunging back to his partner.


WORDS that hadn't been out of his brain for hours seethed there again. "I'm his wife. As long as I'm his wife..." A dead man had no wife! "Sure death fer any cop goes down that hall..."

He gave Dan the layout, but not all of it. He didn't say anything about the tommy-gun, waiting...

"One of us'll take him in front, the other in back," Casten said eagerly. "Maybe he's got a gun, and will wing one of us. But the other will cop him. It's an even chance."

Not even. Not by a damn sight. The one went down the hall... "Take care of him, Jim—" the voice in Boland's head said. And—"He's your buddy, Jim—" They were at the corner of the block on which Ma Fulton's place faced.

"Here's where we separate," Casten said. "Which do you take, Jim, back or front?"

Which do you take, Jim? Maisie or death? A toss with loaded dice. Give your buddy a real chance, Jim. At least you can do that.

"I'm not doing the choosing, Dan. Look here," Boland had his notebook out, was tearing two strips from the edge of one page. "I'll make one of these shorter than the other... You pick. If you pick the long one you go in in front."

You go to your death.

"You're nuts!" Dan grinned. "But—all right. Close your fist."

The ends of the strips showing under Boland's thumb were even. But he knew the shorter one was towards his palm. "Pick," he husked. "Pick, Dan."

Still grinning, Casten pinched a strip-end between first finger and thumb. The end of the palm-side strip. He pulled it out slowly. Slowly pulled life out of Jim's closed hand.

Maisie's lips are hot and very sweet.

"Wake up, Jim. Which one did I get?" He didn't know yet! Boland realized that his hand had dropped to its side—and was still closed.

Maisie's soft breasts thrust against her dress—

Jim opened his hand. "It's—You've got the longer one. Look." He held the remaining strip out to Dan...

Under the ball of his thumb was the bit of paper its nail had pinched off. He hadn't willed that act. He hadn't...

"Let's compare our watches," Dan was saying. "Exactly ten minutes from now I'll smash the door down, and you bust in the window. Get it?"

"Yes." There wasn't anything to be done about it. Jim couldn't tell Dan what he'd done. He'd be a damn fool to tell him.

A damn fool...


JIM BOLAND was a slinking shadow among the fetid shadows of the tenement house backyard. He crawled through a hole in a leaning, rotted fence, slid noiselessly across a second yard. Skyglow showed him a rubbish-filled barrel. He glanced at the glowing numerals of his luminous wrist watch. Nine minutes. Dan was at the rooming house door. He was waiting for Jim to get set...

Boland climbed on top of the barrel—Light blazed down at him, blinding light of a flashlight! The night silence was shattered by a savage chatter—

Tommy-gun slugs tore through Jim Boland, smashing him down, smashing him to bits...

Tommy-gun chatter rattled through the door in front of Dan Casten. "God!" he grunted, and catapulted a muscle-padded shoulder against the flimsy panel. He crashed through, saw a thin, reptilian figure crouched in skyglow outside the window. His gun-butt pounded in his hand, pounded again, orange-red jets streaking across the room's blackness. The jabber of the machine gun stopped in a metallic crash. The figure collapsed, like a gutted flour sack—

Dan was at the window, was leaning out across the sill, was staring at a pallid face that was wide across the top and pointed at the chin.

"Crossed!" Snake Wayne hissed. "That squealer crossed me. I told him to get both of you down there, and he..." A bubble of blood burst on thin lips no longer colorless. Wayne writhed—and was very still.

Dan Casten peered down through rusted, flat slats at the torn, crumpled form beneath. "Jim," he groaned. "Jim! He got you..."

And then. "God! I don't know how I'm going to tell Maisie. She liked him. She liked him a hell of a lot."


THE END


Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
Go to Home Page
This work is out of copyright in countries with a copyright
period of 70 years or less, after the year of the author's death.
If it is under copyright in your country of residence,
do not download or redistribute this file.
Original content added by RGL (e.g., introductions, notes,
RGL covers) is proprietary and protected by copyright.