A Slippery Customer

Illustration of snake on living room floor, plant knocked over

Was jealousy behind the demise of this cold-blooded creature?

“Now, now,” said Sergeant Kate MacDonald, putting a reassuring arm around the sobbing girl’s shoulders.

It seemed a huge drama to make over a pet snake. She glanced curiously at the striped corpse on the floor.

Andrea Hall had been hysterical when she arrived. Her husband had dialled 999, and Kate and PC Mike Fitton were on the scene in minutes.

They found the living-room in disarray. Apart from the dead snake, chairs were overturned, pot-plants upset, and a brick lay on the floor beneath the open window.

Kate looked around with interest. On the table stood a large tank which held some branches and a water bowl. Its lid lay next to it, along with two small cages containing rustling straw.

“What exactly happened?” she asked.

“There was a strange man! I was so scared!” Andrea hiccupped.

She presented a marked contrast to her husband, thought Kate, noting the girl’s make-up and stylish hair. Wearing designer workout gear, she clutched a plastic bottle of expensive water in one manicured hand, while the other clutched her husband’s arm.

Rupert, scruffy and abrupt, made no attempt to comfort her. Instead, he shook her off to peer gloomily into the tank.

“I was upstairs working on my zoology thesis,” he said gruffly, “when I heard Andrea scream.”

“So you ran straight down?”

“No. I was writing a tricky paragraph, and I thought it was just a mouse.”

“A mouse?” repeated Kate.

Rupert pointed to the rustling cages. “We keep mice to feed the snake. Sometimes they escape. Andrea’s afraid of mice.” His lip curled.

“It wasn’t a mouse!” protested Andrea tearfully. “It was a man! I just got back from the gym, and when I came in he was standing there with the snake in his hand!”

“What happened?”

“He clubbed it with a cosh. Then he ran for the window, and climbed out before I could do anything. I was terrified!”

PC Mike Fitton inspected the window.

“No obvious footprints,” he reported. “There could be fingerprints on the frame.”

Andrea shook her head. “He was wearing gloves.”

“Could you describe him?” asked Kate.

“Not really. He had a balaclava on. Tall and dressed in black.”

“Did he speak?”


“Did he touch you?” asked Kate gently.

“No.” Andrea was shivering convulsively.

Taking gulps of water, she looked appealingly at her husband but he was scowling at the corpse.

“Did you see this man, sir?” Kate asked him.

“Unfortunately not. But I’ve a good idea who it was. You see, this was a rare king snake with most unusual patterning. I believe the intruder was a fellow herpetologist.”

“A herp-?” began Mike.

“A specialist in snakes,” supplied Kate. She studied the dead snake. It was certainly very handsome. “Can you give me a name?”

“I could suggest several – all members of the reptile society.”

“All reptiles,” murmured Andrea.

“But why would they kill it?”

“Jealousy,” declared Rupert.

“They’re an obsessive lot,” sighed Andrea with feeling.

Kate was sceptical. “Really? Obsessive enough to break in, force open the tank –”

“The lid wasn’t locked,” grunted Rupert. “It was only held down with that brick. And some stupid person had left the window open so that anyone could get in.”

“Well, I’m sorry for trying to air the room! Your animals smell,” cried Andrea.

“That snake was valuable!”

Mike interrupted diplomatically.

“The window needn’t have been wide open to attract an opportunist burglar. Maybe someone climbed in, was curious about the snake, and took it out of the tank. Then it tried to bite him, so he clubbed it.”

“But it wouldn’t hurt anyone,” objected Rupert.

“It’s a snake,” said Andrea vehemently. “You don’t get it, do you? People hate snakes!”

Kate, foreseeing an argument, said swiftly, “While don’t you both go and have a cup of tea while we look around?”

“Mine’s two sugars,” Mike added with a grin.

Once they were alone, Mike said, “Well? Shall I call in the scene of crime officers, Sarge?”

“For a dead snake?” Kate grimaced. “I think we’ll check the scene first.”

She knelt and scrutinised the snake’s body carefully.

“It’s been clubbed all right, poor thing: hit repeatedly with something smooth and blunt. Quite a frantic attack.”

“Not surprising, if our burglar was scared of getting bitten.”

“Those overturned plants and chairs look as if he thrashed around in a panic. But a herpetologist wouldn’t be panicked by a snake, would he?” Kate stood up. “Does this look like the work of a snake lover, Mike?”

“Looks more like a snake hater to me.”

“Quite. A common or garden burglar, then?” mused Kate.

“Rupert’s not very nice to his wife, is he?” commented Mike as he inspected the tank. “He didn’t exactly rush to see why she was screaming.”

“No. He didn’t seem shocked at all. I wonder if this valuable snake’s insured?”

“Why? You think he might have arranged for its demise?”

“He was unusually quick to finger his envious rivals,” remarked Kate. “I think he’s a slippery customer.”

“Talking of slippery customers – what do you make of this, Sarge?” Mike pointed to the tank’s lid.

Kate looked closely.

“A long scrape mark, with brick dust in the scratches,” she observed. “As if the brick slid off… Mike, I think this snake forced its own way out.”

“Would it be strong enough?”

“It’s a metre of pure muscle.” Kate nodded at the mice. “Maybe it went looking for lunch.”

“So our burglar climbs in,” recounted Mike, “meets a runaway snake, panics and clubs it? Now that’s feasible.”

“Yes.” She frowned. “I just don’t think it’s likely.

“It’s a huge coincidence – a masked burglar climbing in just as the snake gets out.”

“Back to our rogue herpetologists, then? Or an insurance scam?”

Kate shook her head slowly. “Neither, Mike. We’re missing something – like a murder weapon.”

“She said the attacker used a cosh. He must have taken it with him.”

“Hmm.” Kate gazed around. “There’s nothing resembling a cosh in here; that brick would have left scratches. You’d better check the garden. I’m going to ask a few more questions.”

“And ask them about that cup of tea, Sarge. I’m thirsty.”

“Thirsty?” Kate’s head jerked up. “Mike – quick! Come on!”

She hurried from the room and burst into the kitchen. “Stop right there!”

Rupert froze, the kettle in his hand. His wife was running the tap.

“I said stop!”

“I’m only washing up,” protested Andrea.

Kate crossed the room and grabbed the empty water bottle.

“Bag that up!” Kate told Mike. “That’s our murder weapon.”

“Are you mad?” cried Rupert. “It weighs nothing!”

“It’s empty now,” said Kate. “But full of water, it made a very effective cosh. If those smears on it are snake blood –”

“What are you saying?”

Kate looked at Andrea. “Your wife came in and found the snake had escaped from its tank. She panicked and clubbed it with her bottle.”

“Never!” exclaimed Rupert.

“Then she invented the intruder because she knew you would be furious.

“And she emptied the water so that we wouldn’t identify the bottle as the weapon.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” snapped Rupert. “That snake was a pet!”

But Andrea spoke up, her voice shaking. “It was hiding in the plants. I heard it hissing. I was terrified.”

“You know it wouldn’t have hurt you!”

“It came straight at me! I’ve never been so scared. I loathed that snake.”

“What?” Rupert looked stunned.

“I tried to tell you, but you were obsessed with it. You loved that snake more than you loved me.”

“That’s not true!”

“It is. Today you’ve proved it.” Andrea thrust her hands at Kate. “Go on, arrest me. Put on the handcuffs!”

Kate said calmly, “I’m not arresting anybody – not even for wasting police time. I suggest that you two need to have a long talk with each other.”

Outside, Mike muttered, “So Rupert was harbouring a viper in his bosom?”

Kate shook her head compassionately.

“No, just an unhappy wife. The killer was a jealous rival, but not the one he thought.”

“He’s a slippery customer, all right.”

“Maybe in future he’ll be a little less cold-blooded than his poor old snake! Come on, Mike – let’s go and find that cup of tea.”

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