We were gathering wood at an undisclosed location deep in the mountains when I heard a rattling in the pile. I dropped the wood in my arms, and drew my gun.
“Don’t shoot,” Murray said.
“I’m not getting bit way the fuck out in the middle of nowhere,” I said.
“Tell the doctor.”
I holstered my gun, and walked to the little cabin. It was a real dumpy piece of shit: one tiny bedroom, and one tiny kitchen/living room. There was electricity but no indoor plumbing. Dr. Cross sat at a small table reading a medical journal.
“No wood?” He asked.
“Rattler in the stack.”
His eyes lit up, and he grabbed a long metal rod with a hook at the end. At the woodpile, the doctor poked the pole into various crevices until the viper hissed and struck at the rod. The serpent wrapped around the end of the pole, and Dr. Cross removed it from the stack. Pinching the snake below the head, he held it before me.
“Good size,” he said.
“Keep it away,” I said, backing up.
“Don’t be a little girl,” Murray said with a laugh.
Under the guise of providing protection, I was hired to relieve Murray of his sentinel duties, and put an end to the good doctor’s relationship with my employer. The organization I worked for had retained Dr. Cross for his uncanny ability to dissolve flesh and bone. For a time this symbiotic relationship proved productive for both sides in that my employer murdered for money, and Dr. Cross received an unlimited supply of cadavers for his bizarre experiments. As of late, the doctor’s notoriety had sky rocketed, mostly in the form of making the FBI’s top ten most wanted list, and thus my employer no longer wished to maintain ties with the underground M.D.
Holding the snake, Dr. Cross led us to a shed out back. He opened a large meat freezer, released the snake into the icebox, and quickly shut the lid. After the snake removal, Murray and I finished gathering wood for the night. We lit a fire in the stove, and sat at a small table playing Texas Hold ‘Em for cigarettes. I was raking in the Marlboros, and could tell it was frustrating Murray. I too was frustrated. Murray should have taken the truck back to civilization days ago, leaving me alone with Dr. Cross, but bozo wouldn’t depart.
“You boys hungry?” Dr. Cross asked.
“I’m so hungry I could eat the Lamb of God,” Murray said.
“Grab three frozen pizzas from the shed,” Dr. Cross said.
Inside the shed, I flipped on the light, and was about to open the lid to the icebox when I remember the snake. I drew my gun. The rattler wasn’t the only animal with a bite. I lifted the lid, and was instantly struck on the arm. I jumped back, firing my weapon into the freezer.
“I’ve never seen somebody so scarred,” Murray said, bending over and holding his sides with laughter.
“What the hell?” I asked, holstering my gun, as I realized my companions stood behind me.
“You thought this guy bit you,” Dr. Cross said, reaching into the freezer, pulling out the snake, and holding it before me. “It’s harmless. Snakes are cold blooded, and move extremely slow when chilled.”
“What got me?” I asked.
“These,” Dr. Cross said, holding up his thumb and pointer finger.
“You got pinched, and shit your pants,” Murray said. “Worst than a little girl.”
“I’m a collector of frozen rattlesnakes,” Dr. Cross said, dropping the serpent back into the freezer. “Have a look.”
“Unless you’re scared,” Murray said.
I lit a cigarette, and glared at Murray for a moment. His insults were getting on my nerves, and I wanted him to know that it wasn’t okay. After scowling at Murray, I peered inside the cooler. Amid an assortment of frozen dinners was a myriad of motionless rattlesnakes tied into various knots. I recognized the Bowline, the Clove Hitch and the Figure Eight, but there were also advanced knots I had never seen.
“Frozen snakes are pliable,” Dr. Cross said, grabbing a knotted serpent, and untying it.
“Are they alive?”
“No, but they stay supple in the freezer,” Dr. Cross said, retying the chilled reptile. “That is unless some goddamn idiot breaks the ice box shooting a hole in it.”
He did a quick inspection of the case, and determined that I hadn’t damaged the motor, coils or Freon. The Doctor said it was a good thing; otherwise, I would have joined the icy sanctuary. Murray laughed at that suggestion, and I gave him another sharp look, but this time he returned the favor, and we locked into a ‘who was blinking first’ pissing contest.
“Gentlemen,” Dr. Cross said, breaking up the stare down, and handing me a wounded pizza box. “It’s getting late.”
Except for the bullet hole, that was the worst microwaved pizza I ever ate. It was lukewarm and soggy with a side of freezer burn. After dinner we smoked cigarettes, and stoked the fire. Dr. Cross slept in the bedroom on the only bed in the cabin, so Murray and I sacked out in the living room on the floor near the stove. I tried to stay awake longer than my companion, but a profound lethargy swept over me, and I slipped into unsettling unconsciousness.
I dreamt that I was gathering wood from the pile when it collapsed on me, and dozens of rattlesnakes appeared, and wrapped themselves around my limbs in strange and complicated knots.
I woke shivering in the night, half numb from sleeping on the floor. The fire was dying. I stumbled to my feet, tripping over Murray. How was he able to snore through such artic conditions? As I stoked the fire, I felt bad for those snakes in the cooler. Freezing was a particularly inhumane way to die. When I’m assigned a job, I try to reduce the suffering as much as possible. Two to the head usually does the job, quick and painless.
The next morning I felt like shit. Every muscle in my body ached, my head throbbed like a strobe light of pain, and I sweat with fever.
“Wakeup,” Murray said, toeing my ribs.
I stumbled dizzy to my feet, collapsing into a wooden chair at the table. I thought I was having a heart attack the way my chest hurt.
“You look sicker than Typhoid Mary,” Dr. Cross said, entering from the bedroom, and handing me a white capsule. “Take this.”
“What is it?”
“You’ll feel better.”
“But what is it?”
“Just take the damn pill,” Murray barked.
As bad as I felt, I wasn’t taking shit from Murray, so I flicked the pill at him. It bounced off his chest onto the floor. He picked it up, and forced the capsule between my lips. In my weakened state, I could do little to resist. I swallowed the medicine, and for a chaser, Murray slopped warm coffee on my face. Wooziness overtook me, and I fell to the floor.
I woke in my darkened apartment, lying on my bed, feeling fine except for the nightmare about the little cabin in the woods. The light turned on, and I wasn’t home in my bed, and it wasn’t a bad dream. I was still in the cabin, and Dr. Cross and Murray stood over me.
“You look better,” Dr. Cross said, placing a hand on my forehead.
I climbed out of bed, naked.
“Your clothes are folded neatly on the table in the other room.”
“And my piece?”
“On the table.”
I pushed passed Dr. Cross and Murray. I grabbed my weapon. It was still loaded. After I dressed, Dr. Cross and Murray joined me in the cabin’s main room.
“How are you feeling?” The doctor asked.
“Fine,” I said.
“Maybe something you ate?” Dr. Cross asked.
“Yeah,” Murray said. “Maybe you have a weak stomach.”
“Since you’ve recovered, would you fetch some wood for the stove?” Dr. Cross asked.
Outside the air was crisp and cold. I breathed deep and felt invigorated. As I cautiously gathered firewood, listening for rattlers, I decided to give Murray a chance to leave, and if he didn’t take the offer, he’d also receive two to the head. I carried the wood inside, and set it down by the stove. Dr. Cross and Murray ate microwaved scrambled eggs and sausage.
“I can handle things from here on out,” I said to Murray. “Be on your way now.”
“You can?” Murray asked after smirking and shoveling the rubbery eggs into his yap. “You’ve been in-and-out of consciousness for two days, talking in tongues. Think I’ll stick around.”
“Eat something,” Dr. Cross said.
“Ain’t hungry,” I said, and went outside for a cigarette.
“Get more wood,” Dr. Cross said as I closed the door.
I gave that chump Murray a chance to beat it, I thought, struck a wooden match, and held it to my cigarette just as the world’s longest rattlesnake slid across the yard. I drew my gun, and pointed it at the serpent in pure terror, but then I remembered Dr. Cross’ grotesque menagerie of frozen rattlesnakes. I didn’t want this fellow ending up like those other poor bastards, so I let the limbless monster escape into the brush.
When the cigarette ended, I fingered the trigger of my pistol and resolved to put two to each head inside the cabin, fast and painless. Exactly how I liked it. One moment they would be alive, the next moment they’d be dead. I swung open the front door, and bang, bang, bang, bang.
“No Wood?” Dr. Cross said, chewing a breakfast sausage as Murray knocked the weapon out of my hand, and dealt me a crushing blow to the head with the stove’s iron poker.
I woke with a splitting headache. My wrists and knees tied with rope. The room was dark, and I had no idea where I was until Dr. Cross and Murray opened the door, and I realized I was in the shed on the ground next to the freezer.
“How do you feel?” Dr. Cross asked.
“Answer the doctor,” Murray said, toeing my ribs.
“Exciting news,” Dr. Cross said after I didn’t answer, and removed a massive rattlesnake from the freezer. “While dragging you to the shed, we spied the longest specimen I have ever seen. Truly a marvel of nature.”
Dr. Cross tied the snake into a hangman’s noose, and placed it around my neck.
“Looks good on you,” Murray said.
“I’ve been micro-dosing your food with a powder I derived from neurotoxins found in rattlesnake venom. I miscalculated the level of exposure with your pizza the other night, and the hemotoxins almost destroyed your blood cells. Without the antivenin, you would have died from internal hemorrhaging. Eventually, I meant to give you a lethal dose, but not so soon. After you tried to kill us, I sped up the process, and prepared a lethal dose for your consumption,” Dr. Cross said, holding out a bottle of white powder before my eyes. “This was to be your fate until this eight-footer came along. I’ve never seen somebody lynched by snake rope before. Have you Murray?”
“Lucky us,” Dr. Cross said. “And lucky you. Hanging is less painful than succumbing to the powdered venom.”
“If you let me go,” I said. I’ll tell you who sent me.”
“Never thought of you as a squealer,” Murray said, lighting a cigarette. “Have a side of dignity with your death huh.”
“You were sent by our mutual employer, yes?” Dr. Cross said with a smile.
I didn’t say anything as the anger welled inside me.
“Answer the doctor,” Murray said, toeing my ribs.
“I asked the organization to send me a test subject for my powdered venom, and you drew the assignment.”
“Dumbass,” Murray said.
“Let’s string him from the tree in the front yard,” Dr. Cross said.
Murray grabbed the head of the frozen snake, and dragged me across the shed’s floor. I gasped for air as the blood in my head pounded in my ears, and the snake noose tightened around my neck. Just before I lost consciousness, Murray yelped, and let go of the snake.
“Fucker bit me,” he said, holding his wrist as the reptile around my neck loosened and untied itself.
I breathed deep, letting the oxygen fill my lungs as the snake coiled and struck Dr. Cross on the leg. The doctor cried out in pain. Murray unloaded his pistol into the serpent. The wounded viper twisted and writhed as Dr. Cross crushed its head with the sole of his boot.
“Shoot him too,” Dr. Cross said, pointing at me. “I’ll get the antivenin.”
Murray smiled, and drew his pistol. With considerable effort I sat up against the side of the freezer. As Murray pointed the pistol at my head, I closed my eyes. The gun fired, and I fell into darkness.
Something in the distance roused me. It sounded close yet far away. A familiar popping noise that I couldn’t quite place. My eyes opened, and I saw the mutilated snake, twisted and torn on the floor. My head throbbed with pain, and thirst dried my throat. Other than the head wound from the iron poker, I had no injuries. After considerable effort, I sat up against the freezer, and felt a sharp metal edge at the corner of the icebox. It took time, but I sawed off the ropes binding my wrists. My palms and fingers burned as the blood returned. After the tingling was mostly gone, I untied my knees, and gathered my equilibrium.
I opened the freezer, and scraped out a piece of frost amid the knotted snakes. When the frost became liquid, I slaked my thirst. A ray of light seeped through a bullet hole in the wall. I went outside, and in the yard, I saw Dr. Cross lying on his back, covered in blood. The familiar popping sounds that roused me in the shed had been gunshots. Murray sat against the trunk of the tree. His eyes fluttered, and foam dripped from his mouth. He mumbled something that I couldn’t hear, so I drew nearer, keeping my eye on the gun in his lap.
“FBI … please … antivenin.”
I disarmed Murray, and searched the cabin for the antivenin. As I tore apart Dr. Cross’ room, I pieced together a scenario of the recent events that led me to this favorable outcome. The massive snake in the freezer was cold, but still alive when it was tied into a noose. It warmed against my neck and reanimated enough to bite Murray as he dragged me across the floor. The rattler then struck Dr. Cross before meeting its demise.
Murray was supposed to off me while Dr. Cross grabbed the antivenin, but Murray was an FBI agent, so he didn’t shoot me. The bullet hole in the side of the shed suggested that he intentionally fired wide, and I passed out from fear of execution. While I was unconscious, Dr. Cross and Murray must have quarreled, but about what I can’t say. Maybe Dr. Cross figured Murray for FBI all along, and withheld the antivenin from him. When Murray was denied the cure, and began succumbing to the snake’s venom, he shot Dr. Cross, but was unable to locate the antivenin before losing control of his limbs. I couldn’t be sure that this was what transpired while I lay bound and insensible on the shed’s floor, but I didn’t care. I was just happy to be alive.
I tore the cabin apart, but found no antivenin. I sat down at the table, looking at Murray’s gun. Two to the head was more humane than suffering. I was about to kill my first FBI agent when I realized where the antivenin was. Outside, I leaned over Dr. Cross’ corpse, and searched his blood soaked pockets, removing two small plastic bottles. The first bottle contained powder, and the second bottle contained several white capsules.
Murray breathed shallow as I placed the pill in his mouth and tilted back his head. I hoped it wasn’t too late. Even though he was FBI, Murray had saved me, and I wanted to return the favor. I lit a cigarette, and placed it between his lips, but he never inhaled.
I covered Murray’s body with a blanket I found in the cabin before starting down the mountain in the truck. The windy dirt road would eventually lead me to my employer’s place of business. Two to that bastard’s head was too quick and painless of a way for that double-crosser to die. A snake slithered across the road in front of the truck. I braked and felt the bottle of powder in my pocket as the serpent slid into the brush.
Morgan Boyd lives in Santa Cruz California with his wife, two cats and their carnivorous plant collection. He has been published online at Flash Fiction Offensive, Shotgun Honey, Near To The Knuckle, and Yellow Mama.