James Dona's Website
Cobra in Red
by James Dona
Just before she died, Melba Seybold thought that if something went wrong the worst possible outcome was that she would be standing naked before a thousand people.She pranced on stage in the little red dress, and twirled around three times so the knee-length full skirt stood out to show her trim thighs. Her thighs were her best feature, Marcel had often said.
"The Great Marcel! Humph. If it weren't for Georgio and the girls he wouldn't have an act, much less be strutting around before a thousand people in the audiences at 'The Grand Palace.' Such an egomaniac, " she thought, as she stepped up onto the little circular platform and pressed her back against the padding on the rigid backdrop.
Marcel strode over to her side, waving his three-foot-long wand. He gave her a slight cue and then made a dramatic flourish as she moved her back away from the backdrop to allow the red dress to drop to the floor. She stood there in a brief blue bikini while Marcel swept the dress up from the floor of the platform with his wand and paraded around the stage with it, to convince the audience it was just an ordinary dress. Melba smiled, knowing that the trip mechanism was completely hidden in the cloth. Georgio always made sure his clever mechanisms were totally concealed.
Now the girls, Marge and Jackie, came up to fasten her hands and feet to the backdrop, leaving her helplessly spread-eagled. As Jackie was fastening her feet, Marge brought out the little silk sheet and hung it in front of her. Melba's hands and feet were still exposed to the audience, so they could see that she was totally helpless.
Marge untied the strap and removed the blue bikini top, while Jackie untied the side bows and removed the blue bottom, so Melba was clothed only in the backdrop and the little silk sheet that clung to her, so her body was clearly outlined. She always painted her nipples a dark red, and her blond pubic hair was dyed black, so the shadows of both could be seen through the silk sheet. The audience had no reason not to believe that she was totally naked now except for the silk sheet and the padded backdrop. To remove any doubt, the little platform rotated all the way around, supposedly at the command of Marcel's waving wand, so the audience could see both her exposed bare sides.
The girls came back carrying a large opaque drape between them. They turned it around to show both sides, then hung it across the front of the platform. They spread the drape around the sides, all the way to the backdrop, but Melba's shackled hands and feet were still clearly visible.
The girls retreated, leaving the apparently identical red dress hanging on the inside of the drape. Melba leaned forward, pressing her firm young breasts into the bra cups, then thrust her middle against the trip-plate that triggered the springs to encircle her neck and waist with the dress, so she was fully clothed in what would appear to be the original red dress.
Melba felt a searing pain stabbing her neck at the base of her skull. She screamed in pain. The drape fell away. The audience could now see her again in the red dress. Blackness closed in as she pitched forward.
She would have fallen to the floor but for the shackles that bound her hands and feet. The girls rushed forward to support her. A cobra rose out of the fallen drape. The girls retreated in terror at the sight of the cobra's spreading hood. Georgio rushed from the wings with a snake-hook. He snagged the cobra by its neck and swung it into an open box. He slammed the lid down on the snake. Marcel waved his wand frantically at someone off-stage. The curtain dropped. The crowed roared.
The applause continued until Marcel stepped on-stage and took a bow. He spread his arms and shouted, "Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! This special presentation concludes our show for tonight. My assistants thank you, and I thank you. Goodnight."
Detective Ivan Trumbull turned to his wife and said, "Either that girl's the best actress I've ever seen, or she really was bitten by the cobra."
The plump Mrs. Trumbull said, "Now, Ivan. You've been investigating too many murders. You see a crime in a simple magic trick. You're off-duty tonight. Relax! Don't spoil our evening out with your shop-talk."
"Wait for me in the lounge. I'll only be a minute." Ivan was already making his way through the crowd toward the side stage-door.He showed his badge to the guard at the door and walked in. Just as he feared, there was pandemonium on stage. A nurse was bent over the girl in the red dress, who had been released from her shackles and now lay across the circular platform.
The nurse rose and said, "She isn't breathing, and there's no heartbeat. Did someone call for an ambulance?"
"The ambulance is outside, as it always is for this show. Here come the medics now," said the tall young man who had run on stage and caught the cobra.
The medics came in and started CPR on the girl in the red dress. They conferred in whispers with the nurse, then one of them wheeled a gurney in and they lifted the girl onto it, still continuing CPR but without enthusiasm. The nurse continued CPR as the men wheeled the gurney out of the theater.
Ivan showed his badge to the young man who had caught the snake. "Can I ask you some questions?"
"Of course, Lieutenant. I'm Georgio Genova. I'm the stage manager for Marcel. I caught the cobra and put it in that box. I'll call Dan Schmidt, the herpetologist who looks after our cobras. He can come over and collect it. I wouldn't touch one of those things with a ten foot pole uhh ordinarily, that is. Tonight I had to get him off my stage before he bit somebody else." He shuddered and seemed to turn pale at the realization of what he had done.
Ivan looked around the almost empty stage. "Where's Marcel?"
"He must have gone with the ambulance. He was getting pretty attached to Melba as he usually does with his main assistant." Georgio now looked around as if to see if anyone else had heard him say that.
"Do you have any idea how the cobra got into that drape?"
"Not me. Marcel handles the cobras. I loaded the dress into the drape and set the springs to wrap it around Melba when she pressed the trigger, and there was no snake anywhere around then or I wouldn't have gone near it."
"What happened to the drape after you finished with it?"
"I hung it up backstage before the show, and it stayed there until the girls took it on-stage during the last act."
"So the cobra could have been put in the dress at anytime by anyone working backstage."
"Yes, but only Marcel, Marge, or Jackie could have done it without me noticing. I watch everything that goes on, and nobody else came near it. But Melba could have done it I suppose."
"Yes, or I." Georgio now looked like a man who had put his foot in a manure pile. "Excuse me. I better call nurse Redding at the hospital and find out what happened to Melba."
"I'm afraid you needn't hurry to make that call. That young lady was dead before she left here. I've seen too many cases of dead people hauled off in an ambulance after they were beyond help. But make the call if it will make you feel any better."
"Thanks." Georgio walked over to his little stage manager's office and went in to use his telephone.
Marcel popped out of somewhere backstage, just like in one of his magic tricks. "If you're from the news media we will be ready to make a statement after we hear from the hospital."
Ivan displayed his badge. "I have some questions you might be able to answer now, if you wouldn't mind."
"Of course, officer. I don't know how that cobra got into the dress, but is there anything else you would like to know?"
"Why do you say the cobra was in the dress? Couldn't it have been in the drape the dress must have been hidden in?"
"Well I umm ahh yes, I suppose it doesn't matter where I just assumed ." Ivan noted that Marcel had dropped the French accent he used for his show.
"I think we all assumed she was bitten by the cobra. But then the question is; where was she bitten. The autopsy should tell us that."
"The autopsy? You mean she's dead?"
"I'm almost certain she was dead when they carried her out of here."
The pale Marcel started to sit down on the box near him, then jumped up and looked at the box as though it held the deadly cobra.
Ivan said, "That must be the box your stage manager put the cobra in. Is it still in there?"
"I certainly hope so. I'll call Dan Schmidt and he can get it back in its case in the lobby. He's the only one who can handle it safely." He rushed over to the stage manager's office and ran into Georgio who was just coming out the office door.
Georgio said, "I just called the hospital, and the nurse told me Melba was dead on arrival."
Marcel said, "So the officer just told me. You need to call Dan and have him come over and get that snake out of the blue box."
Now Georgio's face turned dark red, and his eyes were as black as ripe olives. "Melba is dead! She's dead, you hear!"
Marcel shrank back from the enraged man. His face turned even paler. He looked around for someplace to sit down, but when he saw the blue box he bolted out the nearest exit.
Georgio watched him go, with a look of contempt. Seeing Ivan still there, he said, "You were right. I was hoping you weren't. She was a good kid, but too young and innocent for this business. I guess there's nothing else to do but call Dan now." His shoulders slumped as he started back to his office.
Ivan said, "I'm sorry to bother you again at a time like this, but can you tell me where I can find the two ladies who were assisting in that last act?"
Georgio seemed to hesitate for a minute, as though considering how to answer the question. "They have a dressing room backstage, but I'm sure they must have gone to the hospital to see about Melba. I can ask them to be here tomorrow morning by ten if you need to talk to them."
"Thanks. Sorry to bother you at a time like this. I want to be here when the cobra is taken out of the box. I appreciate your cooperation. See you tomorrow."
Mrs. Trumbull said, "Well you took long enough, for a case you haven't even been assigned to yet. You're in Homicide, and it must have just been an accident. How is that poor girl?"
"She's dead. And the circumstances are suspicious enough to warrant an investigation. It won't be my case though, because I'm technically a witness along with a thousand other people it seems."
"Oh, that poor girl. How horrible to be bitten by a snake like that. If you're so interested in the case, can't you give it to Jenny Dean? She's your assistant, so that way you can still be involved."
"Yes. That idea had occurred to me. It should be good experience for her." He bent and kissed his spouse on her forehead. He was glad she liked Jenny. That young lady was so attractive that she couldn't be partnered with any of the younger men in the department, so he was forced to take her under his protective wing. Babe understood, and treated Jenny like the daughter they never had.
When he explained the case to Jenny the next morning, she was surprised. "But you should be working this case yourself. It's in all the media, and the publicity would put you in a good position to replace Chief Jordan when he retires. I'm a young cop still, and will have plenty of time to make a name for myself."
"I like what I'm doing, and I may have to testify as an expert eye-witness. If it's your case I can still participate in the investigation Partner."
"Ohh-kay, Mr. Eyewitness. Just tell me what you saw."
"Here's what I think I saw. Remember, when you're watching a magic act you can't be sure your eye isn't being deceived by the wiles of the magician and Marcel is better than most or he wouldn't be playing 'The Grand Palace'."
"Just the fax, man."
After Ivan had related his view of the show, followed by his backstage visit, she looked up from her notebook, ready to start asking questions.
"What about the two girls?"
"The two assistants? They had gone to the hospital to see if there was anything they could do for poor Melba, and when she was pronounced DOA they both went home and took sleeping pills. I suggest you find them and get their statements this morning. I'll run over to the theater and track down the herpetologist, and see what I can learn about cobras. If we hurry we might be able to discuss the case over lunch at my house. Babe will want to hear all about it anyway, so I won't have to tell her the whole story again at dinner tonight."
Dan Schmidt was a little man with thick glasses, whose quick movements signaled an equally quick mind. "I understand you want to witness the 'capture' of the terrifying 'King Rameses'. I was told he's here in the blue box. Just give me a moment and we'll have him in this bag and I'll take him over to my lab for safe examination."
Ivan watched from a respectful distance, as the little man used the snake-hook pole to open the lid of the blue box, and was instantly confronted by the upraised head of a large cobra, its hood spread in anger. He deftly snared the cobra by the neck and thrust it into the sack he carried. The whole snake disappeared as though Dan were a magician.
"Now let's go over to my lab and give him his weekly physical."
At the lab, a few minutes later, Dan brought the snake out of the bag while Ivan watched through a glass partition. Dan held the snake's head up to a small glass measuring cylinder and pressed its fangs over the side of the glass. A clear liquid shot out of the fangs into the glass. Dan quickly dropped the snake back into the bag, and held the glass up to the light. He stared at the glass for a moment, his face showing a concern that Ivan couldn't understand. Dan took a notebook from his desk and entered a number and date into it. He seemed to review the column of figures in the book for a long time for one so swift.
"This cobra hasn't bitten anybody!"
"How can you say that? I saw or thought I saw . Well! That is interesting. But how can you tell?"
"I've been taking care of 'King' for several months. You can see here that his venom production is constant over time. This reading is totally consistent. If he bit that girl, with enough venom to cause almost instant death, the yield today would be a lot less than I just measured."
"But how could that be?"
"You're the detective. Sorry, but I only know snakes. I guess if the autopsy showed she died of cobra poisoning, it must have come from another cobra."
"Does Marcel and company have another cobra?"
"Only old 'Queenie', 'Queen Nefertiti' that is. But she has been surgically altered, so she has neither fangs nor venom production. She can still look dangerous though, when she wears false fangs. Marcel has used her in his act, but she is only used for display now. Have you seen the display in the lobby? I'll have to take 'King' back over there now. He has his own safe glass case where he scares the patrons while they're waiting to get into the show."
Babe said, "Have some more potroast, Jenny."
"No thanks. Have to watch my figure. It sure is good though. That news about the cobra is a surprise. Knocks one theory out of the box. If that cobra didn't kill her, what did?"
Ivan said, "The autopsy report shows the cause of death was due to a bite from a king cobra. We have to resolve that discrepancy. What did you learn from interviewing the two assistants?"
"Marge Wentworth is the older of the two. She used to be the lead girl, but was replaced by Melba because she was pregnant and her waist was getting too big. She seemed to resent Melba for replacing her. She isn't married, but wouldn't tell me who the expectant father is."
"And the other girl?"
"Jackie Hendricks is a fresh face from the sticks. She's ambitious and is hoping to replace Melba. She was shocked by the death of course, but can't wait to be the girl at the top. You might say they are the has-been and the wanna-be."
Ivan said, "Sounds like they both have motive and opportunity. That makes four possibilities at least. Georgio and Marcel also had the opportunity, though I'm not yet sure about their motives. Georgio claims to be afraid of snakes, but he was the one who jumped in to catch the cobra. Marcel is the one who usually handles the snakes, but he seemed terrified of the cobra in the box. We need to do more background investigation of those four people, and their relation to Melba. It might also help to investigate Melba's background too. Was she involved with Marcel or Georgio in some way? Georgio let slip that Marcel was attracted to his assistants, and he might have been jealous of Marcel's relations with Melba. Another surprise was the coroner's report that Melba was also pregnant, but too early to show yet. We have a lot of work to do."
Babe said, "I've got apple strudel for dessert. Would you like it with ice cream?"
Ivan and Jenny stood in the lobby of The Grand Palace, looking at the display cases. The cobra in the case labeled "King Rameses" was apparently sleeping peacefully. In the next case was a slightly smaller cobra that seemed more lively, testing the air with her forked tongue.
Ivan said, "They don't look enough different that you could tell which one you saw on stage."
"So you think it was the queen instead of the king that appeared on stage last night?"
"If someone was faking the cobra bite it would be a lot safer to work with the dud than the fully loaded weapon."
"But you said the cobra was full of venom. What magic switched the harmless one for the deadly one?"
"Magic it was. In this case a bit of stage magic. The blue box 'accidentally' left on stage is a transfer box. Every time the lid is closed there is a divider that toggles. Magicians use these boxes to show an apparent change of one animal into another. It apparently works for snakes as well."
"But someone still had to put the deadly cobra into the box, and that had to be someone who wasn't afraid of snakes. That certainly demonstrates pre-meditation. And if it weren't for Dan and his venom-records we would have bought the snake-bite as the cause of death."
They moved along to the next display case, which showed the skull of a cobra, fitted with hinged fangs.
Ivan said, "This may have been the real murder weapon. The fangs could have been detached and loaded with venom, possibly stolen from Dan's lab. There were no fingerprints on the inside of the case, so everything in there must have been wiped clean by whoever committed the crime."
"But how do we know who did it?""We don't. Forensics has found fingerprints of all four prime suspects all over the second dress and the drape that held the dress and cobra."
"The second dress?"
"Oh, I forgot that you didn't see the show. The dress she came out in was designed to fall off when the trigger in the back was pressed against the backstop. The second dress was designed to wrap around her when she pressed her midriff against the trip-plate. The first dress was in plain sight on the stage until the attention of the audience was focused on the rotating stage, then whisked away so the second one would be thought to be the one she came out in. All very cleverly constructed by Georgio, which makes him the first order suspect."
"But one of the girls could have set up something when they were near her, removing the bikini."
"True. And Marcel could have done something with his magic wand, that could have fired the fatal venom into her neck while he was waving it around. Did you interview Marcel."
"Yes of course, boss. 'The Great Marcel' is Morton Stein from the Bronx. He has never even been to Paris. Started out doing magic tricks when he was a kid, and parlayed a little talent, a lot of determination, and a huge ego into a successful career. He was still small-time until he connected up with Georgio, who is a genius at building illusions."
"So which of the partners is responsible for the pregnancies? That might help establish a motive for one of them."
"Marge won't tell, and Melba can't. The two men may have been fighting over one of the girls, and one of them might have been a sore loser."
"What about the female jealousy angle? Marge might have resented being replaced by Melba, then she would have been really enraged by losing her boyfriend to Melba too."
Ivan stood there musing for some time. Finally he looked at Jenny and said, "Well, the fangs must have been in the dress, and were driven into Melba's neck by the spring mechanism that wrapped the dress around her neck. That's when she screamed, and that must have been what killed her. Unfortunately, if the fangs were in the dress there is the little matter of how they were removed."
"That could have been done by almost anybody. And it might have gone unnoticed in the pandemonium after she collapsed."
"Yes, and I wouldn't have seen it if it were done after the curtain dropped."
"So how can we determine who did it, even if we are correct in our assumptions about how it was done?"
Ivan didn't answer immediately. He seemed to be lost in his own thoughts. Jenny started to say something, then waited patiently for her boss to emerge from his reverie.
Finally Ivan said, "Yes, that might work." He looked at Jenny, and noted her questioning expression. "We need to try a reenactment, to see if something pops up that neither we nor the murderer has noticed so far." He went to find Marcel.
"My partner is a quick study. She can fill in for purposes of the reenactment this afternoon." Jenny had been enthusiastic about the idea when he had explained it to her. "I'll sit in the audience, where I sat last night. Try to do everything exactly the same, but don't drop the curtain, so I can see everything that went on while the curtain was closed, and before I came backstage."
Jenny pranced on stage, wearing the red dress, and whirled around to show her slightly more substantial legs than those of the professional dancer she was imitating.
She stepped up onto the platform and stood with her back against the backstop. Marcel came up and repeated his professional fakery with the wand, and Jenny moved just as she had been instructed, letting the red dress drop to the floor. They had examined everything in the props for the act, including the dresses, drapes, and Marcel's 'magic wand'. Ivan suddenly felt a little nervous, as she stood there looking stunning in the tiny blue bikini. The bikini top now seemed stretched to the breaking point. Was this going too far?
Now Marge and Jackie came up with the silk sheet, hung it in front of Jenny, then proceeded to remove the bikini. It was a shock to Ivan, who now realized that Jenny was standing there behind the silk sheet in the same helpless condition that Melba had been in, but it was too late to protest that it wasn't necessary to actually remove the bikini. The platform rotated to display her naked side views, and Ivan knew his face was turning red. Jenny, on the other hand, stood there as serene as if she were in uniform.
Ivan began to perspire as the girls brought out the drape, knowing that it hid the second red dress and the cobra!
The drape was hung in place, and the silk sheet removed. Now it was Jenny's turn to move forward to trigger the dress to spring around her. Even though she had examined the dress to make sure it contained no secret cobra fangs, she still felt a cold chill facing the unknown. She had found the basting stitches that had been broken to let the cobra escape, and had sewn them back so Dan could put the cobra between the drape and the front of the dress.
When the drape fell, Jenny let out a convincing scream and sagged down so her weight was on the manacles that held her to the backdrop. Ivan felt a sudden chill, even though he was sure Jenny was faking the imitation of Melba's reaction to the cobra venom.
The girls rushed forward. A cobra reared up from the fallen drape. The girls screamed and ran away. Georgio came out with the snake-hook and stared at the cobra. After some hesitation, looking out at Ivan, he captured the cobra. He carried it over to the blue box and flipped open the lid. Another cobra reared its hooded head out of the box. Georgio stopped in surprise. He stood looking at this cobra, then looked out at Ivan again. He dropped the snake-hook and ran off the stage.
Dan Schmidt came on-stage from the opposite side, picked up the snake-hook, dropped the first cobra into the sack he carried, and closed the box-lid over the second cobra. Marcel just stood there, too surprised by this change in the program to wave his wand at the curtain control person.
Ivan sat watching the drama on-stage. The girls were too scared to come back and release Jenny, so Dan went over and removed the shackles, and Jenny stood there with a big grin on her pretty face.
Dan said, "Are you sure you're all right?"
Jenny favored him with her winsome smile. "I'm fine now, thanks."
Ivan came on stage and scowled at Jenny. "You didn't have to go all the way with the nude act."
She was taken aback by this remark, and started to blush. Dan seemed to be uncomfortable with this confrontation, and retreated.
Ivan turned away to hide his embarrassment, just in time to see two officers bringing the downcast Georgio back on stage. One of them said, "He was trying to get out the back door, just like you said he would."
Dan Schmidt joined Ivan and Jenny at dinner that evening, and Ivan watched the two young people admiring each other for some time before he said, "Thanks for coming up with that other harmless cobra. I had hoped the fake fangs would scare Georgio into believing King had somehow gotten through the barrier in the transfer box. When he thought he was faced with a dangerous cobra, he panicked. It had to be Georgio who rigged the fangs in the dress, then removed them while everybody was trying to save Melba's life. He knew about the transfer box, and put King in one compartment before the show, then took Queenie out of the box before you came to remove King. I looked at the box later, and Marcel showed me how it worked. If you hadn't noticed that King couldn't have bitten anyone because he still had a normal supply of venom, I wouldn't have suspected that the cobra in the drape was a distraction.
Dan said, "Well that's how the magic business works. Georgio created the illusion that a cobra bit Melba. He probably stole some venom from my lab, while he was hanging around asking questions about cobras. He even asked me how much venom it took to kill a person, and how fast they would die. I need to tighten up my security measures."
Jenny said, "The autopsy showed that Melba was pregnant, and so we knew she might have been a threat to her lover. We still didn't know which of the men was the father. If Georgio was the father he might have wanted to get rid of the responsibility. If Marcel were the father, he might have wanted the same thing. But either might have been jealous of the other. How did you know which one did it?"
Ivan said, "I wasn't sure, until I realized someone had to put King in that transfer box. They both claimed to be afraid of the cobra, but I could see that Marcel's fear was genuine, while Georgio was faking it. Georgio didn't run from the cobra in the box, he ran because he knew we had figured out the scheme and he was trying to escape."
Ivan finished his meal and said, "Time to get home to my Babe. See you kids later."