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I heard the hissing sound first.
Then I saw it slither out of its cage.
I stopped in my tracks and held my breath. The creature moved so fast I could only make out a blur of gray scales uncoiling at my feet. In two seconds flat, the reptile reared up in front of me and locked eyes with mine.
It was "The King." And I'm not talking about Elvis Presley.
This was a king cobra. Twelve feet of angry, hissing poison with beady yellow eyes, a big flaring hood, and a glistening pair of needle-sharp fangs.
I kid you not.
"Don't move, Joe."
My brother Frank lay on the floor in the corner, next to a smelly tank of baby turtles. I was glad to see that he was okay. Outback Mack had clobbered him pretty good with a twenty-pound bag of pet feed.
Yes, the Outback Mack.
"You may have seen his hokey homemade commercials on late-night TV "G'day, mates," he'd drawl in his exaggerated Australian accent. "I'm Outback Mack. And if you like rare and exotic animals as much as I do, you'll just love Outback Mack's Animal Shack. We've got snakes, turtles, iguanas, gators, you name it...all in one convenient location off Route 17." Then he'd cock his pith helmet, hold up a lizard, and wink. "You gotta love 'em."
What a creep.
If he loved rare and exotic animals so much, why would he ship them into the country illegally, packed into filthy crates as if they were office supplies?
Outback Mack was a criminal, no doubt about it.
Which is why Frank and I were assigned to this case.
Let me explain. My brother and I are undercover agents for ATAC American Teens Against Crime and we applied for after-school jobs at Outback Mack's so we could gather evidence of illegal wildlife trading. The United States has strict laws about importing and selling exotic animals, and Outback Mack was breaking every rule in the book. The fool even thought he could advertise his business on television without getting caught.
But Frank and I underestimated him.
Outback Mack had figured out who we were and what we were doing. He caught my brother going through his files and that's when he clubbed him with a big bag of pet feed.
And oh, yeah that's when he unleashed the king cobra.
I could hear Outback Mack's footsteps as he dashed down a corridor and out of the warehouse.
I could also hear the king cobra...hissing at me.
"Stay calm, Joe," Frank whispered.
Was he kidding? There I was, face-to-face with a giant killer reptile, and my oh-so-thoughtful brother wanted me to stay calm?
Yeah, right No problem, bro.
The cobra flared its hood even wider.
"This is not cool, Frank," I managed to gasp. "He's getting ready to strike."
"Just relax. King cobras aren't usually aggressive. They tend to flee."
"Really? Tell him that."
"Don't make any sudden moves."
"I'm not planning to."
"Just hold still and I'll call for backup."
Frank slowly pulled his cell phone from his jacket pocket and speed-dialed the local police. I stood there like a statue, frozen by the cold stare of the king cobra.
If looks could kill...
Those eyes were the scariest things I'd ever seen except maybe for those fangs.
What are you looking at, snake? Your next lunch?
A pink forked tongue darted in and out of the cobra's mouth. I couldn't help but wonder what I looked like through the eyes of a snake. A super-sized cheeseburger? An extra-tall order of fries?
"Help is on the way" said Frank, clicking off his phone.
"Great," I replied. "But what if Mr. Hissy here bites me before they arrive?"
Frank took a deep breath. "Actually, king cobras aren't as venomous as smaller cobras."
"So I wouldn't die?"
Frank hesitated. "Well, um, probably. One bite delivers enough venom to bring down an elephant...or twenty men."
"Thanks for the fun facts, Mr. Discovery Channel."
The snake hissed at the sound of my voice.
"Quiet, Joe," my brother whispered. "I have an idea."
"It better be a good one."
"It's the only one I got."
"That's good enough for me."
Frank rose slowly to his feet. " YDU have your CD player with you, right?"
"Sure," I answered. "It's in my back pocket. Why? Do you want to groove on some tunes while I die? Go ahead, check out the new Thrasher CD. That should drown out my screams."
"Maybe the music will distract the cobra," Frank explained. "It works for snake charmers."
"But dude," I protested, staring at the hooded reptile in front of me. "I don't see any ears on this guy"
"Believe it or not, snakes have a highly developed sense of hearing."
"Speak up, Frank. I don't think the killer snake heard you."
My brother ignored me. "Their ears are internal. They feel the sound vibrations in their jaws."
I stared at the cobra's powerful jaws and shuddered. "So where do we put the headphones? On his fangs?"
"I think he'll be able to hear it across the room."
"Just stand still, Joe. I'll creep up behind you and get the CD player. Then I'll try to lure the snake away with the music."
I sighed. "Try real hard."
"Don't worry, man. I got your back."
"Unfortunately, the snake's got my front."
"Shhhhh." Out of the corner of my eye, I watched Frank sneak up behind me, moving so slowly and silently that the king cobra didn't seem to notice.
I'm the one that he wants.
The giant reptile moved its head closer to mine less than two feet away and hissed at me again.
Hey, buddy. Say it, don't spray it.
Then he fixed those cold, hungry eyes on me. My heart pounded so loudly in my chest, the snake probably heard it with those internal ears of his.
Maybe I'll die of a heart attack instead of a snake bite.
Something bumped me from behind.
It's got me!
But no. It was Frank, reaching into my back pocket and pulling out my CD player. I let out a little sigh of relief.
Then I remembered something. Something bad.
"I'm right behind you, bro."
"The batteries are almost dead."
Frank didn't say anything. He simply stepped back and moved slowly to the corner of the room. Then he clicked a button on the CD player and waited.
Nothing. No music Just silence.
I'm snake food.
Frank turned the volume dial. I held my breath.
Come on, batteries.
A soft burst of heavy metal music erupted from the tiny earphones.
The cobra stopped hissing and turned its head toward the CD player. I grinned at Frank.
It's working, dude!
Slowly the giant snake swerved its entire body, inching its way closer to the sound.
"He hears it," said Frank. "And I think he likes it."
"I told you, this new CD totally rocks."
The snake slithered across the floor and reared up in front of my brother. Its hood flared open, its head swaying gently back and forth.
"Look at him," said Frank. "He's hypnotized by the music."
"Yeah," I agreed. "And he's got you trapped in a corner. Now what? Do you have a Plan B?"
Frank glanced over his shoulder toward the back wall of the warehouse. Then he turned around and gazed at the door leading out of the room.
"I have an idea," he said, slowly crouching down. "I'm going to slide the CD player across the floor toward the back wall. When the snake goes after it, we run for the door. You go first. I'll try to shut the door on my way out."
I frowned. "Sounds risky."
"Do you have a problem with that?"
"Are you kidding? Risky is my middle name."
"I thought it was Irving."
"Are we going to do this or not?"
Frank nodded grimly and squatted down, placing the CD player on the floor. The king cobra held its focus on the earphones. It angled its head downward, ready to strike at any second.
That's when the batteries died.
The music stopped. And the snake hissed.
"Frank!" I shouted.
The cobra's head spun around. It glared at me with those angry yellow eyes.
Frank slammed the CD player against the floor. The sound of static crackled through the earphones.
A heavy metal guitar solo flowed from the small plastic player and captured the attention of the snake. The cobra swung around and glared at Frank.
With a quick shove, Frank sent the CD player sliding to the back wall.
The king cobra sprang after it, jaws open, fangs glistening.
In a flash it shot past Frank's foot. And sank its teeth intol the CD player.
"Run!" I bolted for the doorway. Frank was right behind me. Sliding into the hall, I turned to see Frank grabbing the doorknob.
The king cobra slithered after us. Fast.
The door closed with a bang followed by a loud thump.
"Ouch," I said. "It sounds like Mr. Snake bumped his head."
"I think he'll be okay Now let's get out of here and see if we can find Outback Mack."
Frank and I turned to face a long hallway lined with animal cages of all shapes and sizes.
"Um, Frank," I said softly. "Do you see what I see?"
My brother looked and nodded.
Outback Mack must have opened all the cages on his way out of the building.
The entire hallway was crawling with animals.
Snakes, turtles, lizards, iguanas, alligators if they were slimy or slithering, they were there. Dozens and dozens of reptiles and amphibians from all over the world were crammed into one long narrow space right between us and the exit door.
"How do we get out of this one, Frank?" I whispered.
My brother smiled. "Very carefully."
Without a trace of hesitation, he started walking down the hall, careful not to step on any of the creepy crawlers.
Is he crazy?
A red-and-black-striped snake hissed at me from the top of a cage. I sighed and followed in my brother's footsteps.
"Don't worry, Joe," he told me. "Most of these animals can't kill you."
"Most of them?" I asked. 'What about the others?"
"If they bite you, you die."
"Thanks for clearing that up."
I watched Frank step over a four-foot-long alligator without batting an eye.
Well, if he can do it, I can do it.
Taking a deep breath, I marched ahead.
And got bit by a baby iguana.
Copyright © 2005 by Simon & Schuster, Inc.