The cobra, p.1
"There she is," Decker said, as they started to eat.
Blake Douglas took a bite of hamburger and watched the young woman step through the doorway of Bestburgers. She looked to be in her twenties. Her blond hair hung straight to her shoulders. She wore a sweat shirt, jeans, and leather boots. Her purse hung from her shoulder by a long strap. Blake was sure she was carrying a pistol in it.
"She's pretty," he said.
"Don't let her looks fool you," Decker told him. "She's a snake, or she wouldn't be a member of the People's Strike Force."
Blake took a sip of his milk shake. The woman named Lana Jeffers walked to the counter, sat on a stool, and leaned forward to pull a menu from behind the napkin holder. It made him feel bad to think that someone so pretty was a terrorist.
"She comes in here at five in the afternoon every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday like clockwork," Decker said. "We thought the counterman might be her contact with the PSF, but we haven't seen any funny stuff. I guess she just likes the hamburgers."
"They're not bad," Blake said, taking another bite.
"We've been hoping she might lead us to the others," Decker went on. "But no luck, so far. That's where you come in."
Blake nodded. He felt a knot in his stomach, but he knew it had nothing to do with the burger. It was nerves. It was guilt. It was knowing he must try to become Lana Jeffers' friend, only to betray her.
Decker frowned at him. "What's wrong?"
He shook his head. "I'm not sure I'm cut out to be a spy, that's all. It's like playing dirty."
Decker leaned forward. He put his elbows on the table and stared at Blake with narrow eyes. "The People's Strike Force doesn't play fair, either, pal. Look what they did last month in Los Angeles. They gunned down a guard and two innocent people during that bank job. Don't talk to me about playing dirty. We'll go after them any way we can."
Across the diner, Lana was talking to the man behind the counter. He wrote on a pad as she gave him her order.
"Was Lana with them in Los Angeles?" Blake asked.
"She was," Decker said. "The police nailed the other three, but she got away. She's a slick one, pal. As slick as they come."
"Did she do any of the shooting?" Blake asked.
"She did plenty. She sprayed around enough lead to open a pencil factory."
"Did she hit anyone?"
"No," Decker admitted. "Does that make her an angel? It makes her a lousy shot. What's with you, Douglas?"
Blake shrugged. "I don't know . . . she looks nice. She doesn't look like someone who . . ."
"She'd put a slug in her own mother if she thought it would help their cause." Decker scowled at Blake. "Are you with us on this? Because if you're not, you'd better speak up quick." He glanced at his wrist-watch. "You've only got two minutes and thirty seconds."
Blake lifted the burger to his mouth, ready to take another bite. But he realized that he had lost his appetite. He put the burger down.
"Go on and back out," Decker said. "If you have cold feet, you've got no business being with the intelligence division.
Maybe you're not cut out for it. Maybe you belong back in a patrol car, wearing that nice blue uniform."
Blake met Decker's steady gaze. "I'm not backing out," he said.
Blake turned his head as the front door of the diner swung open and two men stepped in. Hunter and McBain.
"They're early," Decker said.
They both wore business suits. They both drew revolvers from under their coats as they walked toward the stool where Lana Jeffers waited for her supper.
"Police!" Hunter yelled at the back of Lana's head. She sat up straight as if she had been poked in the back with a stick.
The diner went silent. Every head turned toward the two policemen and the woman. Blake, heart pounding, slid his chair back from the table.
McBain tugged Lana's purse. Its long strap flew off her shoulder. She started to turn.
"Don't move," Hunter said. "You're under arrest."
Blake slowly stood up. He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself.
"Okay, Miss Jeffers," Hunter said. "Raise your hands slowly and lock your fingers on top of your head."
She did as she was ordered.
McBain reached under his coat. He took out a pair of handcuffs.
Blake reached under his own coat. He took out a Walther P-38 pistol . "Freeze!" he shouted.
The cops whirled around. Hunter got off a shot at Blake, then cried out and flopped backward as Blake's pistol roared. McBain swung his revolver toward Blake. Before he could fire, Blake pulled the trigger four times. The blasts pounded his ears. McBain spun, crashed over a stool, and fell. Hunter, already on the floor, raised his gun for another shot. Blake emptied his clip at the man. With each shot,
Hunter twitched as if he was actually being struck by a bullet. His blue sport shirt was soaked with red from broken bloodbags.
Lana Jeffers stared with wide eyes at the two fallen officers. Her face looked pale, almost gray. Then she looked at Blake. For just a moment, he saw horror and disgust on her face. It quickly passed. She made a tight, crooked smile, leaped off the stool, and jerked her purse out from under McBain's body.
"Let's go," Blake said.
With a nod, she ran past him. Blake waved his pistol at the shocked diners. "Nobody move!" he shouted. He walked backward to the door. Decker, still sitting at the table, smiled slightly to himself.
Lana was waiting just outside the door. "Have you got a car?" Blake asked.
She shook her head.
"Okay, we'll take mine." Grabbing her hand, he pulled her along the sidewalk. She ran beside him, her white boots flashing over the pavement. She kept her eyes straight ahead as if she was afraid to look at him. Blake guided her around a corner at the end of the block. His car was at the curb. He jerked open the passenger door for Lana, then raced around the front and got in behind the steering wheel. With a glance in both directions, he saw that the street was clear. He whipped the car into a U-turn, and sped away.
"Slow down," Lana said after a few seconds. "You don't want to get stopped for speeding."
"Right," Blake said. He let up on the gas pedal.
For a long time, neither of them spoke.
Blake drove slowly through the San Francisco streets. He wondered what to say. This wasn't one of the endless rehearsals Decker had put him through, back at the station. This was real. The well-practiced story didn't seem quite so believable now. It seemed thin and fake. Lana would see through it. She would know he was a cop. Maybe she already knew.
Finally, Lana broke the silence. "You sure did a number on those jerks."
He looked at her. Her grin sent a chill up his back. He tried to smile. His face felt stiff. "I whacked them good, huh?"
"Two more cops out of the way," Lana said. "Thanks. I don't know who you are, but . . ."
"I know who you are," Blake said. "Lana Jeffers."
She looked surprised.
"You've been doing good work for us," Blake said.
"You're one of us?" she asked.
He nodded. "Carlos sent me out here on a job."
"Carlos?" She spoke the name of the PSF's leader quietly, almost in a whisper. "Carlos, himself, sent you? Who are you?"
He took out his pistol and handed it to Lana.
"A Walther P-38," she said. Then she saw the small ivory snake inlaid on its handle. The snake decoration that had been added by Decker's brother-in-law, a jeweler. "A cobra," Lana whispered. She gazed at Blake with wide eyes. "You're the Cobra?"
"That's right," he said.
Lana had a stunned look on her face, almost like a teenager gazing at a favorite rock star. She handed the pistol back to him and said, "Holy s
"I've heard so much about you," Lana told him. "The Cobra. I can't believe it." She smiled at Blake. "I always pictured the Cobra as a big ugly brute with scars. You look so clean-cut and . . . handsome."
"Thanks," he said. He felt pleased and slightly embarrassed that she found him good-looking. More than that, he was relieved that she had bought his identity. Decker had told him that very few members of the People's Strike Force had ever seen the Cobra. The group's chief assassin worked alone, taking his orders straight from Carlos. Show her the pistol, Decker had said, and you're in. Thank goodness he was right.
"What were you doing in the restaurant?" Lana asked.
"Trying to eat. Then you walked in. Small world."
"Are you in town for a hit?" she asked.
"I can't talk about that."
"No," she said. "Of course not."
"Look, we'd better get off the streets."
"We've got a safe-house," Lana said. "Over on Taylor, just above North Beach. Let's go there. You can meet the others."
Blake frowned, but his heart raced. This is what they had hoped for. Lana was not only willing but eager to take him to meet the members of her attack group. But he knew he shouldn't show he was eager. "I don't know," he muttered. "It's bad enough that you've seen my face. The fewer people who can recognize me, the more I like it."
"You can trust them," she said.
"How many are there?"
"Four others," Lana told him. "They're all good people, dedicated to the cause. You can trust them," she repeated.
"I'll be the one to decide who I can trust. Name them."
"Willie Jackson, Irma Getz, Blitzer Hogan and Herb Leonard."
Blake nodded. "I've heard good things about Getz and Hogan," he said. He had heard of those two, all right, but nothing good. The pair was on the FBI's "Most Wanted" list for more than a dozen bank robberies. They had shot two guards. It came as news to Blake, however, that they were with the PSF. They weren't just a couple of greedy stickup artists, after all. They were terrorists stealing to buy weapons for their "movement." If he could bust those two . . . This was almost too good to be true.
"If there's you, Getz and Hogan," he said, "you must be planning a bank hit."
"The First Federal on Grant Street. Tomorrow. So how about it? I know they'd be really honored to meet you. You're something of a legend, you know."
"If you think I'm going in on the bank hit with you," Blake said, "forget it. That's not my job."
"No. I would never ask you to do that. You're much too important to be risked in a hold-up."
"All right, then. Point the way."
Lana gave him directions. A few minutes later, he turned onto Taylor Street. The road, above the Broadway tunnel leading to North Beach, slanted steeply upward between two rows of apartment houses. When he swung toward the curb to park, the car tipped so much that his stomach lurched. He thought for a moment that the car might flip over, but it didn't.
He opened his door. Its surprising weight jerked the handle from his grip.
The door flew wide, slamming into a black van parked a yard downhill. He climbed out. Lana didn't even try to push open the passenger door. Instead, she slipped across the seats and got out on Blake's side.
"This way," Lana said.
He followed her up the sidewalk. Turning around, she took a few backward steps and smiled at him. The breeze blew her long hair across her face. Returning her smile, Blake felt a pang of regret. Such a shame, he thought. She's so beautiful. He could easily get to like her. But how could he like a cold-blooded terrorist?
"She's a snake," Decker had said.
She didn't look at all like a snake.
But Blake had a job to do. He would do it, no matter what she looked like.
He followed her across a walkway to the entrance of the house.
In front of the door, she pushed a button for one of the apartments. "It's Lana," she said into the speaker.
"Who's that with you?" asked a man's rough voice. He must have seen them from a window.
"He's okay. He's one of us. He's someone you know."
"I don't know him," said the voice.
"You know of him," Lana said. "It's all right. Open up."
A buzzer sounded, and Lana pushed the door open. Blake stepped into the foyer behind her. Stopping at the foot of the deserted staircase, he pulled the pistol from under his drab green jacket.
Lana looked at him. She narrowed her eyes. "What's that for?"
"I haven't stayed alive this long by being careless," Blake said. He pressed a button to drop the magazine from the pistol's handle. As the flat, metal container slid down, he felt himself break into a sweat. Had he emptied it at Hunter and McBain? Of course he had. But he hesitated. What if he was wrong? What if a single blank cartridge was still there and Lana saw it? I'm not wrong, he told himself. But he turned away from her, just in case. He dropped the magazine into his hand. It was empty.
He took a fresh magazine from his pocket. This one held live rounds. He slid it into the automatic, and jacked a cartridge into the firing chamber. He made sure the safety was off.
"You're not very trusting," Lana said.
"That's right. How do I know one of your pals isn't really an undercover cop? The Cobra would be a big prize for him. I'm worth more than the rest of your little group put together. He wouldn't mind blowing his cover for a catch like me."
Lana stared into his eyes.
For a moment, Blake felt close to panic. He'd gone too far. He shouldn't have brought up the subject of undercover cops. He shouldn't have planted the thought in her head. But it was too late to call back the words.
"You don't have to worry," Lana said. Her voice trembled slightly. "Come on," she said.
Blake's legs felt weak as he climbed the stairs behind her. The pistol was slippery in his sweaty hand.
Get out of here! he thought. You can't face all of them. They'll be waiting with guns, just in case. Lana will give the word, and it'll be all over.
But he couldn't allow himself to back down. He followed Lana to the top of the stairs, and up to the door of room 2B.
Turning to him, Lana said, "You'd better put the gun away. If you walk in with that in your hand . . ." She shook her head.
"Right," Blake said. He pushed the slim barrel under his belt.
Lana knocked on the door. A moment later, it swung open. He followed her into the apartment. Across the room stood a skinny, long-haired man with an M-16 automatic rifle. The muzzle was aimed at Blake. He pictured himself leaping aside, rolling, drawing his pistol. But before he could act, Lana said, "It's all right, Willie. Put down the gun. Meet the Cobra."
Willie looked amazed. He lowered the rifle and propped it against the wall. "The Cobra?" he asked.
Irma Getz looked up at him from a card table where she was playing chess with a strong-looking bearded man.
The door slammed shut behind Blake. He turned around and looked into the eyes of Blitzer Hogan. Blitzer pushed his revolver into his shoulder holster. "You're the Cobra?" he asked.
Lana answered for Blake. "He's got the Walther with the snake. Show him," she told Blake.
It could be a trick to disarm him, he thought. But this wasn't the right time to try to take them. They were too spread out, and too close to their weapons. He decided to play along. He pulled the pistol from his belt and handed it to Blitzer.
As the man stared at the ivory snake on its handle, Lana said, "He saved me from the cops. That's how we met." She opened her purse.
"I was about to have supper at Bestburgers, and . . ." Then she pulled out an automatic and aimed it---right at Blitzer Hogan's stomach.
"Drop it, Blitzer," she said.
"What the . . . !" he said with shock on his face.
"NOW!" Lana yelled.
The Walther fell from his hand. Willie leaped for the M-16. Lana turned and fired. He grabbed his side and fell. She swung her pistol toward Blitzer again. "Don't move! FBI! You're u
Getz and Leonard, at the card table, looked at Lana with disbelief. She waved her pistol at them. "Don't even think about moving!"
Blitzer made a try for her. Blake drove a knee into the man's belly, then dropped to a crouch and grabbed the Walther.
Lana's small weapon swept toward him.
"Don't shoot!" he snapped. "Douglas, San Francisco Police!"
Her eyes went wide. She said, "Holy smoke."
At least we took four of them out of the picture," Blake said later over a cup of coffee at the station.
Lana shook her head. "I thought I was getting the Cobra, or I would never have blown my cover."
"Sorry," Blake said.
"Oh, it's not your fault. There's never been any good communication between our agency and the local police." She shrugged. "Anyway, I guess I'm glad to be out of it." She looked at him with her clear blue eyes. "And I'm awfully glad you weren't the Cobra. I liked you. Right away, I liked you. It made me sick to think you were a killer."
Blake felt the warmth of a blush spread over his face. "Hey," he said. "You never did get to eat supper. Hungry?"
"How about Bestburgers?" he asked.
"I can't stand their food," Lana said, grinning. "I only ate there because my field contact works the counter."
"Well, you name the place, then," he said. "It's the company that's most important, anyway," he said, smiling.
Richard Laymon, The Cobra
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