Venom Business, page 1
The Venom Business
Michael Crichton writing as John Lange
For Herman Gollob,
who asked for it,
And for Robert Gutwillig,
who got it.
Part I: The Snake Man
Part II: The Snake Convention
Part III: The Venom Business
A Biography of Michael Crichton
Part I: The Snake Man
IT WAS NOT A very good hotel, but it was the best in the town, and it had a fine old bar with overhead fans which rotated slowly, casting shadows across the ceiling. He was partial to that bar, with the creaking fans, and he liked the bartender, Henri, so whenever he came to Valladolid he stayed in the hotel.
The girl said, “Do you come here often?”
“Every month,” he said.
“Snakes have made Charles very rich,” Henri said. Henri was an old Parisian; he loved to talk, long into the night. He particularly liked to talk to Raynaud, because he traveled so much.
“Pour yourself a drink,” Raynaud said, “and shut up.”
Henri laughed delightedly.
“And pour another for the girl,” Charles Raynaud said.
The girl was sitting there, wearing trousers and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up. She was rather pretty, long blond hair pulled back casually; Henri introduced her as Jane Mitchell. She seemed quiet and reserved and a little stuffy.
“Miss Mitchell,” Henri said, “just arrived today.”
Raynaud said, “You’re with a tour?”
She shook her head. “Hate tours.”
He was genuinely surprised. “You came alone?”
“I can take care of myself,” she replied quickly.
“Miss Mitchell,” Henri said, “is on her way around the world.”
“Escape,” she said.
“From New York,” she said, pushing her glass across the bar to Henri.
“And how did you happen to choose this gay resort?”
“I wanted someplace out of the way.”
“That,” he said, sipping tequila again, “you definitely have.”
Henri said, “Miss Mitchell was expressing great interest in your work.”
“You’ll have to excuse Henri,” Raynaud said, “he is an incorrigible matchmaker.”
“Nonsense,” Henri said.
“Well, it’s true,” the girl said, “I was curious. I never heard of anybody collecting snakes before.”
“Oh,” Raynaud said, “I don’t collect them. I sell them.”
“To zoos,” Henri said, “and to scientists.”
“And snake farms,” Raynaud said. “You might say I’m in the venom business.”
“Is it interesting?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “It’s really quite dull.”
“How do you catch them?”
He shrugged. “Prong, sometimes. Or a trap. But usually just bare hands.”
“That,” she said, “sounds interesting.”
He smiled. “Only if you make a mistake.”
“And you don’t make mistakes?”
“Not if I can help it.”
“You are very sour tonight, Charles,” Henri said. “Invite the girl along. You can see that she wants to go.”
“Oh, I couldn’t—”
“Nonsense,” Henri said, raising his hand. “Charles would be delighted to have you. He would say so himself but he has not had enough to drink. He’s very shy.”
“Really, I don’t think—”
“You mustn’t be put off by Charles, as you see him now. He is actually quite charming. Charles, be charming.”
Raynaud grinned. “Miss Mitchell,” he said, “you are cordially invited to a snake hunt tomorrow morning.”
“If you don’t accept, I shall go to my room, which I now know to be second best in the hotel, and hang myself from the ceiling fan because I lacked the charm to convince you.”
She smiled back at him. “That sounds awful.”
“Then you accept?”
“Good. But you must understand two things. The first is that we leave at five in the morning. Sharp.”
“And the second is that you will probably be very bored by the whole thing.”
She smiled, and said, “I’ve been bored before. I think I can stand it.”
“Then,” Charles said, “allow me to buy you a drink.”
When the girl had finally gone to bed, Raynaud stayed at the bar to have a last drink with Henri.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Raynaud said.
“You were disgraceful,” Henri said.
“I didn’t want her to come.”
“Absolutely disgraceful. Are you getting too old?”
“I have a tight schedule tomorrow.”
“But she is very pretty, Charles.”
“She is attractive.”
“And besides, she is so unhappy. I think she has had bad luck with love, and now she needs to be happy.”
“You think catching snakes will make her happy?”
“I think,” Henri said, “that it will divert her.”
“And I think that she will sleep peacefully until noon.”
Henri looked at him slyly. “One hundred pesos?”
“One hundred pesos.” He took the money from his wallet and set it on the bar.
“I fear you have just lost a bet.”
“We’ll see,” Raynaud said.
He sat hunched over the wheel, concentrating on the driving. The Land Rover bounced over the muddy ruts of the jungle road as the first pale rays of dawn broke over the corozo trees along the horizon. They were huge trees with forty-foot fronds, glistening after a week of hot rains.
Alongside him, the girl sat smoking a cigarette, watching the road. Ramón, the boy, dozed in the back seat with all the gear.
“How much?” she said.
“A hundred pesos.”
“Why did you bet?”
He shrugged. “Why does anybody bet?” he said.
“And now you’re angry because I made you lose?”
“No,” he said. In fact he was not. The usual girl he took hunting showed up in a cotton dress and sandals, and had to go back to change. But this one had arrived in heavy twill trousers and high boots, very businesslike. And in a way he was glad for the company.
“Where are we going?” she said. “Chichén.”
“Chichén Itzá? The ruins?”
“But is it open yet?”
“You seem to know your way around.”
“I don’t lose all my bets, if that’s what you mean.”
“No,” she said, looking at him. “I don’t think you do. But when Henri was talking about you…”
“You expected a little potbellied man with a pith helmet and a butterfly net.”
“And instead you are dazzled by my wit and verve.”
“How old are you?”
“Thirty-four. How old are you?”
“I’m not supposed to tell,” she said.
“Yes. But then I’m not supposed to ask.”
“Twenty-five,” she said.
He took the left fork at the monument turnoff. Here, for no particular reason, pavement began. The road was good all the rest of the way to the ruin.
The girl brushed her hair back from her face. “It’s already getting hot,” she said.
“Yes. It will be a good day. The natives will refuse to work.”
“Because a hot day after a rain brings the animals out.”
“Then it should be perfect.”
“Depending on your viewpoint,” he said.
She finished her cigarette and lit another from the glowing tip. He glanced over at her and she said, “I’m not nervous. It’s just how I wake up.”
They came to the edge of the ruins; the pyramids could be seen to the left, rising over the trees.
“Have you ever been bitten?” she said.
“More often than I wanted to be.”
“Are you married?” she said.
He did not answer. They parked by the gates in front of the sign, glistening damp: “I.N.A.H. Departamento de Monumentos Prehispánicos, Zona Arqueológica de Chichén Itzá, Yucatán.” They got out; around them the jungle was noisy with howler monkeys and the shrieking chatter of parrots. The ground underfoot was damp and steaming as Raynaud walked to the back of the car and began unloading the gear: a long, pronged aluminum stick, a machete, a heavy canvas bag, double-lined, and a small battered metal box.
Ramón, the boy, crawled yawning from the back seat. Jane Mitchell looked at the gear laid out, and said, “You don’t have a gun.”
“I do,” Raynaud said. He produced the heavy .45 revolver. “But the boy gets it.”
He handed it to Ramón.
“He comes with us?”
“No, he stays here. To make sure the car isn’t stolen.”
“But then you won’t have a gun…”
“Won’t need it,” Raynaud said. He threw the bag over his shoulder, picked up the aluminum stick, and handed her the metal box.
“Just in case?” She opened the lid and surveyed the tourniquets, syringes, and rows of small vials.
“Just in case,” Raynaud said.
They walked to the gate, unlocked it, and stepped inside.
She watched the way he moved through the tall grass. He was a big man, well over six feet, and powerfully built, but he walked with a slow grace. He kept his eyes on the ground, his neck bent, and she noticed again the pale white scar that began behind his right ear and disappeared down his collar. The scar bothered her; many things about him bothered her. He did not fit into any of the expected categories: too nasty to be a zoologist, too subtle to be a bush hunter. She wondered if he had done other work before.
“Where did you get the scar?”
Absently, he touched the line. “An accident.”
“What kind of an accident?”
“When I was a child,” he said vaguely, and moved ahead, forcing her to hurry after him. He seemed to her a suddenly mysterious figure, standing to his knees in tall grass and clinging, steamy mist; he seemed almost to be floating, with the pyramids all around them. The jungle on the perimeter was now silent as a tomb: all sound from the animals had stopped as soon as they had entered the gates. Now there was nothing but a faint swishing as they moved across the grass.
“Have you been in Mexico long?”
“Always working with snakes?”
“No. I began as a foreman for archaeological digs. I was good with languages, you see.”
“And French. German. Russian and Japanese. A smattering of English.”
“Where did you learn them? College?”
He was frowning; her questions seemed to bother him. He had a pleasant, almost boyish face, but it took on an ugly aspect when he frowned, something dark and faintly sinister.
“But you are American.”
“Oh, yes. Born and bred. The Bronx, actually.”
And then he doubled over in a quick jackknife and was lost in the mist and grasses, and she heard a nasty hissing sound.
He raised up with a long black snake dangling from one hand. He had caught it right behind the head. The snake wrapped itself about his forearm in sinuous coils.
“How do you like it?” he said, holding it so she could see the head, the gaping jaws, the pink grainy mouth.
She knew he was trying to shock her but she was not shocked. The snake was large but not half so ugly as the rattlesnakes she had grown up with.
“Very pretty,” she said. “What is it?”
“Genus vera ribocanthus. Quite deadly. The natives call it the rollersnake, because of the way it moves.” He examined it critically. “This is a fine specimen.”
He dropped it into the bag and moved on.
“The poison,” he said, “is a potent anticholinesterase. Interrupts nervous transmission at the neuromuscular junction. The victim dies of asphyxiation, by respiratory paralysis.”
“Have you been doing studies?”
“No. Professor Levin at LSU. I supply him.”
“You supply a lot of universities?”
“Quite a few.”
They walked on. In a few minutes, the pattern was repeated again—a swift darting down, a scramble in the grass, and another snake. It seemed to be the same kind. He dropped it into the bag.
“You’re very good at this.”
“Practice,” Raynaud said.
As he moved through the grass he was hardly aware of her. The questions annoyed him because they broke his concentration, lifting his attention away from the grass, where he was watching for small movements, small disturbances which moved counter to the wind.
As he walked he wondered about her, because she did not seem repelled by the snakes. Or fascinated: she watched them with a kind of cold, almost clinical interest. She showed none of the horrified thrill that the others had demonstrated.
He bent forward slightly. He needed a third snake, and it might as well be a vera. They were cumbersome animals, easily caught. And there seemed to be many of them today.
In a few minutes, he saw another, sliding away. He darted forward and gripped it swiftly, catching the damp slimy body behind the head, squeezing the scaly flesh, feeling the coldness. He always had a moment of revulsion when his fingers touched it—just the briefest moment of elemental disgust, and then it passed.
Still bent over, he held the snake firmly as it wriggled and hissed. The tongue flicked out.
And then he froze.
Just three feet away was a diversnake, its orange and blue body coiled around a clump of grass. The diversnake was reared back to strike, the head high and moving from side to side, the mouth wide, the fangs showing whitely.
He did not move.
The diversnake was fiercely poisonous. No one had been known to survive a bite, and people had died of the most superficial scratches.
For a moment he thought the diversnake, having been startled up into an attack stance, would lapse back.
A shot rang out, and another.
The first bullet caught the snake in the head, tossing it to one side. The second hit it as it fell and buried the head deep into the mud. The animal was dead, the body continuing to writhe reflexively.
He looked back over his shoulder. The girl was standing there with a gun in her hand, looking pale. Her purse was open and the gun was smoking faintly.
For a moment neither of them spoke, and then she said, “Are you all right?”
“Yes. Fine. Thanks to you.”
“It was. About as mean as they get.”
He straightened up and dropped his snake into the bag. The girl slipped the gun back into her purse and clicked the latch shut.
“You, ah, had that with you all the time?”
“Yes. I always carry it.”
He set the bag on the ground and took out his cigarettes. He shook one out for her, lit it, and took one for himself.
“You never can tell,” she said, “when you’ll need it.”
“You obviously know how to shoot.” He glanced back at the snake. She had fired from thirty feet, perhaps more. Most people couldn’t hit a building at that distance, with a hand gun.
“I learned young,” she said, sucking on the cigarette. “I grew up on a ranch.”
“Alms to your teacher,” he said. “You saved my life.”
She smiled slightly. “Glad to be of service.”
On the way back, he said little. The girl sat alongside him, and as he drove, he found himself growing curious about her. He looked over at her and decided that Henri was right, she was exceptionally pretty.
“What are you doing tonight?”
“Me?” She smiled. “Nothing.”
“How would you like to go to a party?”
“In the jungle?”
“Hardly. There’s going to be a reception at the German Embassy.”
“Embassy? But that’s in—”
“Mexico City. Yes.”
“I don’t have a plane ticket,” she said.
“You don’t need one,” he said.
At three thousand feet, the jungle lay vast, dense, and impenetrable below them. Raynaud checked his compass and sat back in the seat. In the cockpit alongside him Jane Mitchell said, “How long have you had it?”
“It says ‘Herpetology, Inc.’ on the side panel. Is that your company?”
MICHAEL CRICHTON SERIES:
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