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Copper Cobra

By Norman A. Daniels

Attorney Stan Leonard's first case promised to be his last
when he took a treatment from the health cult whose cure
meant death

STAN LEONARD walked briskly into police headquarters and laid his brand new brief case on the lieutenant's desk. Leonard was twenty-four, dressed somewhat conservatively, but he was big enough to draw attention.

"I want to see Dr. Madison," he announced with a certain air of importance. "I'm his— lawyer."

And into that last word went all those years he'd slaved as a counterman half the night, studied Blackstone between hamburgers, and worked like a horse in college all day.

The desk lieutenant's lips quivered as though he were trying to prevent a smile. If he was, it didn't work. A moment later he burst into a gale of laughter.

"So you're the mouthpiece the judge assigned to 'Pills' Madison, eh. Tell me, young fellow, does that judge hold anything against you?"

"Not unless it was because I trimmed the britches off his son. He went to another college and was supposed to be their champ boxer."

The desk lieutenant sobered quickly. "You don't know what you're up against, do you? Well, I'll broadcast a hint. Madison is no doctor although he's gone under that title for many years. Here, we call him Pills Madison. His racket has always been to bleed money out of suckers by fake medical cults and new-fangled health cures."

"Go on," Leonard said slowly and without quite so much pride in his profession.

"Well, Pills got himself a brand new one this time. He started a health outfit that provided the suckers with cobra poisoning. Mind you—snake poisoning. Of course, it was supposed to be administered only in minute doses and, according to Pills' statements, it made a person live about ten years longer than his normal span of life."

"I understand Dr.—I mean Pills—is in for murder," Leonard said.

"He is. What I'm trying to get over is the kind of job you've got ahead of you. One of the clients at Pills' health institute was killed. He got too much venom—direct from a cobra. Pills kept a few of 'em around for advertising purposes. What's even worse, the dead man happened to be Ben Turner, a big shot with lots of money. Very important guy."

"I—think I'd better see Madison," Leonard said. "Frankly, Lieutenant, it did strike me odd that I was appointed by a court to handle a murder case for a man without enough money to hire his own attorney. Just the same, I'll see it through."

The lieutenant pushed a button and summoned a turnkey.

"By the way, attorney," he bent over the desk, "have Pills tell you all about the metal cobra on his desk. The one that came to life and bit Ben Turner. It's a howl of a yarn."

LEONARD followed the turnkey to Pills Madison's cell. Pills turned out to be a man who looked more like a doctor than a composite of fifty physicians. He even wore glasses on a ribbon, a white-edged vest and spats.

Leonard sat down beside him. "My name is Stan Leonard. The court appointed me as your attorney. If I'm going to handle your case, Madison, I must have the truth. Perhaps it would be better if you threw yourself on the mercy of the court."

"The mercy of the court," Madison jibed in a melancholy voice. "They'll have mercy on me all right—when the judge gets a gander at my record.

It's longer than your arm. Just the same, I never killed anyone. Least of all, Ben Turner. I liked the old coot."

"Let me get it straight," Leonard said. "You ran a health clinic illegally, of course. You gave cobra venom to people foolish enough to believe it would help them."

"I never handed out any cobra venom in my life," Madison groaned. "The stuff they got was sarsaparilla flavored with a couple of harmless drugs that gave it a funny taste. They paid me fifty dollars a shot. The stuff cost a little less than four cents to prepare. But I didn't kill Ben Turner."

Somehow, Leonard found himself believing this man. Of course, he was noted as one of the greatest confidence men in the business. The desk lieutenant had been clear enough on that topic, yet he did seem to be in earnest now.

"Could Turner have been bitten by a cobra at your place?" Leonard asked. "There were cobras, of course?"

"Four of 'em," Madison sighed. "I bought 'em from a busted side show. Their fangs had been removed years ago. They're all dead now. The cops knocked 'em off. I liked those snakes. They had no right to kill 'em."

"And what's all this about a metal cobra killing Turner?" Leonard persisted.

"Oh—that! I should have kept my mouth shut. You see, Turner was in my place. He took his usual shot of the stuff that he thought contained cobra venom and then went into my private office to make a phone call. About five minutes later I went in too, and Turner was on the floor. He was dying. I knew that so I called the cops."

"Get to the point," Leonard said tartly. "I'm interested in this metal snake."

"It was just a thing I bought as a prop. It's a solid copper cobra sitting on top of a black metal square. Turner kept mumbling about the copper cobra biting him. I—thought the cops should know so I told them."

"Do you think Turner was having hallucinations as he died?" Leonard asked.

"You got me, attorney. One thing I will say. Turner was scared. Not so much scared of dying as he was of the copper cobra up there on my desk. Personally, I think he was nuts, but there's no denying the snake bite on his wrist—or the cobra venom that got into his blood stream."

Leonard shook his head slowly from side to side. "Madison, you're in a pretty bad spot. The copper cobra idea is so absurd we'd better not mention it again. Was there any reason why you should have killed Ben Turner?"

"If there was, I never knew about it," Madison grunted. "But the cops will cook up something. They usually do."

"Who financed you in this racket?" Leonard asked. "I want the truth now. At the moment you have no money so you probably had to get a backer. I'm looking for another murderer— someone who used you as a stooge. That's the only way we can clear you—by finding the real murderer."

Madison looked up and there was a new light in his eyes. "Say, I'm beginning to think you're on the level. First off, I figured they'd sent some green lawyer just to give him training while I get the chair."

"I'm green—this is my first real case, but if they are trying to make chumps out of you and me, Madison, we'll show them something else. Come on. Tell me everything."

Madison talked eagerly. "The whole setup was phony. Business had been rotten for months. I was down and out. Then I got a letter asking me to be on a park bench at two in the morning. I went there because I had nothing to lose. Well, you know what the dim-out has done to the parks. It was dark as pitch there."

"Someone came along?"

"Yes. I never even got a glimpse of him. He told me his name was Mack Brown. Said he had a new angle and needed my help to put it across.

Then he explained about the cobra racket and I fell for it. Brother, I'm as big a sucker as those yaps who paid me for the phony treatments."

Leonard arose. "I'll see you later. There are a few angles to be ironed out and I'm in my best ironing mood right now. If you're not lying, Madison, I'll get you out of this somehow."

Leonard walked briskly through the main office at Police Headquarters. The desk lieutenant's voice brought him to a halt.

The lieutenant said, "Attorney, you didn't let Pills sell you the Pennsylvania Station, did you? Because if you bought it, I'm sorry. The place ain't yours. Pills sold it to two other guys ten years ago."

MADISON forced a grin and marched out. He hailed a taxi and gave orders to be driven to the Turner residence. He decided to start at the top and work down if necessary.

Jess Turner, weak-chinned, sandy-haired and foppish, let him in. Leonard was escorted into a huge living room. Two men were seated there. One fondled a brandy inhaler.

Jess Turner said, "This is Attorney Stan Leonard. He was appointed by the court to defend the man who murdered my uncle."

The man with the brandy inhaler was husky, partially bald and quite distinguished looking. He burst into long, loud laughter. Then he extended his hand to Leonard.

"My name is Ames. I'm the lawyer for Ben Turner's estate. Glad to know you, Leonard. One thing this case will do is dry you behind the ears. You haven't a chance."

Jess Turner jerked a thumb in the direction of the third man. Leonard had been wondering who this young, slender and obviously shy person was.

"Meet Wilcox. He was my uncle's secretary. I haven't decided whether or not to keep him on. Now what do you want to know, Mr. Leonard?"

"Exactly what makes you so certain that Madison murdered your uncle?"

Jess Turner scowled. "An hour ago I wouldn't have been so sure, but we've just finished looking over some of Uncle Ben's papers. We found a lot of cancelled checks, all made out to Madison. They run into the thousands. Madison was either blackmailing my uncle or he talked him into financing that crazy health institution and then killed him so Madison wouldn't have to share the profits."

Leonard walked over to the desk. Wilcox, the secretary, went over beside him and pointed to more than fifty cheeks scattered on the surface of the desk. Leonard barely restrained a gasp of astonishment. The checks were all signed with the name of Mack Brown. The name of the mysterious person who had met Madison in the park and persuaded him to begin this racket.

If those checks were ever presented in court, with Madison's handwriting on them, it would be all up. Once Ben Turner was proven to be Mack Brown—the case was finished.

"I don't understand it." Leonard pretended to be puzzled. "These checks are all signed by someone other than Ben Turner."

"We can prove that my uncle and this Mack Brown are the same man," Jess Turner said sharply. "Don't worry about that."

Leonard saw an envelope from a bank in the desk. Obviously it had been used to mail these checks in. The address was in the name of Mack Brown and sent to P.O. Box 722, Park Station.

Leonard nodded in the direction of Attorney Ames. "It's beginning to look as though I'll lose my first client to the electric chair."

"Talk him into pleading guilty to second degree murder," Ames advised. "It's your only way out unless you want to make a spectacle of the case for the publicity involved."

Leonard's eyes grew dark with anger. "Listen, Ames, you may be one of the crack lawyers in this town, but casting insinuations like that, reveals just how your mind works. That's what you'd do, but I'm going to be different."

"I suppose you'll get Madison off free and clear?" Ames guffawed.

"That," Leonard snapped, "is just what I intend to do. Also I'm quite sure I know how to go about it. Good evening, gentlemen."

Jess Turner moved to bar the doorway. "You're going to pull some trick. It won't work. Do you hear me? I'll have you broken, disbarred. I'll—"

Jess Turner gurgled a bit then because his windpipe was cut off. Leonard grasped him by the collar, lifted him, turned and threw him into a chair. Then he walked out.

It was dark now. Leonard walked briskly in the direction of the Park Branch Post Office. He knew the place wasn't very large as far as branch post offices go, but it would be open for another hour or two.

He entered the place, looked for Box 722 and saw that it was empty. He went to the clerk in the information window, placed his card on the desk and made a request.

"A client of mine has been involved in a crooked scheme. He sent money to Box 722 in this office. The money has not been returned, and the renter of that box doesn't answer inquiries. I want to see the card he signed to rent that box."

"Well, I don't know," the clerk hesitated. Leonard hadn't gone to law school four years for nothing. He used his best argumentative measures on the man and finally got him to bring out the card. On it was written the name of Mack Brown, with an address that was probably fictitious.

THE box had been paid for six months in advance, but what really intrigued Leonard was the signature on the bottom of the card. If Ben Turner had signed those checks with the name of Mack Brown, then he had never signed this card with the same name. There was no similarity in the handwriting at all.

A phone jangled somewhere behind the clerk and he walked away to answer it. Leonard saw more of those cards, blank ones, just inside the window. Working rapidly, he reached in, managed to flick one of them under the grill and he quickly walked over to a desk. There he fitted the card in, exactly as the original had been treated.

When the clerk got back to his window again, the new card lay there and the real one was in Leonard's pocket. He thanked the clerk and went out.

Halfway down the steps, someone touched his elbow. Leonard stopped short and got his tongue ready to fashion excuses. All he could think of was the speed with which the Postal Inspectors worked.

But the man was Wilcox, Ben Turner's private secretary. Wilcox's lips were drawn down in a scowl.

"May I talk to you?" he asked. "It's about the murder."

Leonard led him over into the gloom beneath two large trees near the sidewalk.

"How did you know I was here?" Leonard demanded.

"I—didn't. You see—Jess fired me right after you left. Threw me out of the house and tossed my things out after me. Jess has never liked me. I'm too quiet, I guess, and I served his uncle too faithfully."

"Go on," Leonard urged. "I noticed how you glanced at the bank envelope and I knew what was in your mind. The same thing struck me a couple of hours ago. That maybe Ben Turner wasn't Mack Brown. That the signature on the post office lock box application wouldn't be his. I—waited outside when I saw you'd beat me to it."

"Well, I'll tell you this," Leonard said. "The signatures differed. That card will be safe in there. I'll subpoena it if necessary. Anything else on your mind?"

"There might be some evidence at that health institute. I thought of going there."

"So did I," Leonard answered. "We'll go together if you like. Think there's anything funny about this, Wilcox?"

"Yes, I do. Jess Turner has been waiting for years for his uncle to die. Sometimes I think that lawyer, Ames, has been waiting for the same thing. Ben Turner promised that he'd leave me some money when he died. Ames says he didn't and I know that's a lie."

Leonard whistled softly. He'd wondered if a motive could be developed around Jess or Ames. Now it seemed there was some substance to his idea. He felt good enough to squander a dollar and a quarter on taxi fare.

Pills Madison's health institute was far uptown and occupied the whole of an imposing private dwelling. The place was securely locked up, but Leonard no longer had many qualms about breaking the law. Not after what he'd done at the Post Office.

He went around to the back of the place, removed one shoe and smashed a window. It required a few minutes to pull the pieces of glass away and reach the latch. Then Wilcox gave him a boost up and Leonard scrambled into the house. He pulled Wilcox in also.

They stood in the darkness, listening. Only an eerie, almost painful silence reigned over this house of murder.

"Ever been here before?" Leonard inquired in a whisper.

"No, never. I—I don't feel so good here right now, if you know what I mean."

"Come on," Leonard said. "I'm interested in finding a copper cobra. It's on Madison's desk, wherever that is."

"You mean—a cobra that is copper colored?" Wilcox asked.

"No. You'll see. Follow me. Watch out you don't trip over anything. I won't turn on the lights. They might draw cops."

They searched the first floor, came to the extreme back of the house and stepped into a room that was even darker than the rest of the house. Leonard guessed that was because it had no windows. He risked snapping on the light switch.

Two immense brass braziers lit up, throwing a weird, shadowy light over the room. There was no other means of illumination. Leonard walked up to an extremely large desk. It must have cost a small fortune. The drawers were opened as if someone had gone through their contents. That would be the work of detectives.

LEONARD gasped when he finally noticed the copper cobra. It was a unique, ugly thing. It rested in the center of the desk. There was a black, metal block about a foot square. On top of it was the cobra. Lifelike to a remarkable degree, it made Wilcox give a gasp of horror. It was coiled, as though it might leap and strike with venomous fangs at any moment. Its mouth was open and two long, sharp teeth of glistening copper were visible.

"Ugly looking thing," Leonard commented. He tried to pick it up, but the object seemed to be solidly affixed to the black base. "I'll take my oath, though, that it never bit anybody. Solid copper, Wilcox."

"I—I don't like it here," Wilcox shivered. "This is where Mr. Turner died?"

"Probably right where you're standing," Leonard grinned. "He was a nice old duffer from what I hear."

"The very best," Wilcox declared stoutly. "That's more than I can say for his nephew and that lawyer. Leonard—I'm not afraid any more. I want to stay here and see if anything happens."

"What do you mean—happens?"

"I mean—if Madison did not kill Ben Turner, someone else must have. That person may know we are here, wonder what we are up to and try to prevent us from finding out things. Listen—I know that Ben Turner said he'd been bitten by that—that copper snake just before he died. There were marks of a snake bite on his wrists and cobra venom killed him. It's a trick of some kind. I'm going to stay here and find out what it was."

Leonard frowned for a moment. "It's risky, Wilcox. As you say, Jess or Ames may be involved. If you saw me study that bank envelope, so did they."

"No difference," Wilcox insisted. "I'm staying. You may go if you wish."

"Tell you what," Leonard said. "I'll pretend to leave, but come back through the window. I'll hide somewhere. If anything happens, yell and I'll come running."

"Good," Wilcox approved. "I hoped you'd say that."

Leonard left the ex-secretary there, made his way to the front of the house and walked out. Two blocks away, he made sure he was unobserved, dived into another yard and made his way back to the house. He climbed through the window, sat down in a chair near the front door and waited.

Half an hour went by. The house creaked dismally several times and more than once Leonard thought he could almost hear the sound of a serpent slithering across the floor.

Then he heard a wild yell, something crashed to the floor and a moment later it was followed by a heavy thud, and then another. The last one actually shook the house.

Leonard jumped up and ran madly toward the office. The door was closed. He opened it, saw Wilcox lying in a heap on the floor and blood streamed out of a laceration on his skull. He'd been struck an extremely hard blow and he was unconscious.

Leonard glanced at the copper cobra. It hadn't moved. He set about bringing Wilcox back to his senses. There was brandy in a decanter and he forced some of this into Wilcox's throat.

That did the trick. In five minutes Wilcox was standing, holding weakly to the back of a chair and explaining what had happened.

"I—remember sitting there, at the desk. I watched the cobra. The thing fascinated me.

Leonard—it moved! The cobra began to uncoil. It had little red eyes that hypnotized me. It reared back. I thought it was going to strike. I—broke the hypnosis somehow and screamed. Then something hit me. That's all I remember."

"Something hit you all right," Leonard grunted. "It was meant to break your head wide open and whatever the weapon was, the would-be killer took it away with him. Wait here while I have a look."

Leonard knew no one could have entered or left the room without being seen by him. There were no windows. The answer must lay in a secret panel of some kind. He spent half an hour pounding the wall and searching for a spring. He looked behind heavy ornamental trappings of satin and silk.

"I don't feel very well." Wilcox was breathing hard. "I'm scared, Leonard. Scared stiff. That copper cobra did come to life. It wasn't my imagination, I tell you."

Leonard picked up a letter opener and rapped the copper cobra hard with it. The thing was solid and inanimate. Yet Wilcox didn't seem the type to suffer such hallucinations.

"Just before all this happened," Leonard said, "I thought I heard a strange knock. Did you hear it?"

"Yes. A ghostly knock. The kind you hear at spiritualist meetings. Right after that the cobra moved."

Leonard took his arm. "Suppose you go upstairs and lie down. I'll take the vigil here. I want to see that cobra move, Wilcox."

WILCOX was more than willing to leave the room. Once out of it, he wanted to depart from the house and only Leonard's best persuasive manner made him stay. Wilcox made himself comfortable on a bed in one of the upstairs rooms.

Leonard went back to the office, closed the door tightly and looked at the copper cobra. He repressed an urge to shiver and another to get away from there as quickly as possible.

He sat down behind the desk, drew out of his pocket that post office record card and studied it again. Time dragged. He tucked the card away, picked up a pencil and idly began making foolish drawings on the blotter. Wilcox had apparently killed time the same way. He'd scrawled his name in several places, traced a pretty good picture of the copper cobra and as he finished it, his pencil had apparently dragged off the blotter when he became alarmed.

Leonard studied the cobra again and started to make a similar drawing. In the utter silence he could feel an aura of danger envelop him, feel the first crawling sensation of terror, That serpent could hypnotize a man. There was no question about it. He didn't blame Wilcox for insisting that the thing uncoiled. This solid piece of copper seemed to possess life.

Leonard started to fill in the drawing. There was a sharp rap on the door behind him. He gasped, turned quickly and tensed. The knock wasn't repeated. He arose slowly, walked to the door and grasped the knob. He flung the door wide open. The hallway was empty and silent.

With a grunt of exasperation, Leonard walked back to the desk and sat down. Almost mechanically, he glanced at the serpent and then tried to merge his body into the woodwork of the chair he occupied.

The copper cobra was moving.

It had reared up a bit and its coils slowly gathered themselves into a position to spring. The thing had tiny red eyes, evil eyes. They held Leonard's attention like a magnet.

The head slowly reared back, the jaws were wide open and the fangs glistened in the dim light, as though they were covered with venom. Leonard made his feet move. They gave the chair a hard shove and the movement made his wits snap back to normal.

He still held the pencil although it was bent in his grasp to a point near breaking. Then his eyes opened still wider. The whole serpent seemed to be rocking a bit, as though it were on a see-saw. This movement increased until he saw that the snake rested upon a tiny platform that rocked back and forth.

Leonard reached out with the pencil. He touched the ugly thing that was poised to strike. As the pencil made contact, the serpent's head snapped down. The pencil dropped out of Leonard's fingers. He hurled himself back. The serpent was alive, after all. It could strike. This thing of solid copper possessed such ability.

Leonard glanced over his shoulder toward the door, half expecting someone to come rushing in. He looked back again. The cobra had stopped moving. It had assumed its original position. Cautiously he touched it with the pencil again. There was no response. He gently felt of the cold, metallic surface. The snake had turned back to solid copper.

It might have all been more like a dream than a reality except for the two tiny drops of liquid on the desk. Venom from the fangs of the copper cobra.

Leonard shivered. Then he grew tense. Someone was slowly turning the doorknob. Leonard quickly dropped to his knees, stretched out on the floor and lay perfectly still.

The lights went out. Apparently, the murderer was taking no chances. Through Leonard's mind flashed thoughts of Attorney Ames, who'd been openly insolent. Of Jess Turner who wasn't weeping any copious tears over the murder of his uncle. Both could be guilty—or either.

Someone bent over him. A foot prodded his ribs experimentally. Then the unknown man started searching Leonard's pockets. His fingers found that card from the post office and started to remove it.

Leonard's two arms slowly raised and then snapped into action. His fingers closed around a throat. He brought up both knees and sunk them deep into the pit of his enemy's stomach. This drew a howl of pain and then the killer started to fight.

LEONARD liked that. He wanted to feel his fists make hard contact with this murderer's face. He methodically drove the man back toward a wall and realized the darkness enshrouded killer was actually falling back on purpose. Something sailed past Leonard's head. He just let his knees buckle under him. The same object came swinging back and he felt the breeze of it. There was a loud crash as it struck the side of the room.

Leonard made a dive toward the door. The murderer was moving that way too, but Leonard got there first. He snapped on the lights.

Wilcox, ex-secretary to Ben Turner, was half crouched and there was a snarl on his lips. He leaped, hoping to reach Leonard before he was recovered from what should have been surprise. Instead Leonard was ready. Wilcox took a right fist full on the mouth. A left rocked his head back and he sat down heavily.

Leonard stood over him. "Get up and I'll break your neck," he warned. "I'm holding you for the police, Wilcox. Your arrest will free my client and that's what I'm primarily after."

"Madison killed Turner. What are you talking about?" Wilcox groaned. "One of his damned cobras didn't have its fangs drawn."

"You mean the copper cobra," Leonard said. "There it sits on top of the metal square that looks solid and isn't. There's a timing device inside. It sets off a knock on the door somehow to draw the attention of anyone away from the copper cobra. During that instant or two, strange things happen. The copper cobra spins around and disappears into the hollow box. Out comes another cobra that looks like copper, but isn't. It's an ingenious arrangement of springs and thin pieces of metal that work like a wind-up toy. The snake moves. When it is touched, the fangs strike and they are loaded with venom. They leave a mark just like a real cobra would inflict so that you could blame the death on one of Madison's harmless snakes.

"Wilcox, you arranged this whole thing to kill Ben Turner. We'll find his estate short, find you forged checks. You acted as Mack Brown, too, talked Madison into starting this place on funds you pilfered from the old man. You knew his weakness for new fangled health institutes and you got him to visit this one. You had to get rid of him before he discovered you were crooked."

Wilcox didn't say anything, but it was clear that Leonard's accusation made sense. Wilcox was beginning to wilt.

"The post office box record gave you away,"

Leonard went on. "You rented the box under the name of Mack Brown, started a bank account under the same name. But in signing the card, you were in a hurry and didn't take time to forge the signature to look like Ben Turner's writing. You trailed me to the post office, saw me swipe the original card and knew I had to be done away with. You figured on using the same method on me as you used on Ben Turner."

"I did not forge any signatures." Wilcox found his voice, but there wasn't any enthusiasm in it.

"I'll prove you did," Leonard said. "At least prove you signed this card with the name of Mack Brown. While you waited in this room alone, to test the copper cobra, you scribbled your name several times. It matches the signature on the post office card. The blow on the head you took, threw me off the track for awhile until you tried to hit me with the same object. It's tied to one of the drapery cords and can be swung out like a pendulum. You let it hit your head a glancing blow.

"What a racket you cooked up! It would seem that Ben Turner had posed as a man named Mack Brown, started this crazy health institute and had been murdered by Madison because he wanted all the profits. Yet I'll bet you got those profits from Madison somehow. He's broke—was forced to accept an attorney appointed by the court. Come on. Get up."

Leonard hoisted Wilcox to his feet, searched him and then seized his arm in a strong grip.

"Let's go," he said. "There's a phone at the front of the house. And Wilcox—if you need an attorney—"

Wilcox told him what he thought then, in language of extremely definite proportions.