COUNTRY JUSTICE
By James H. Riggle

Jake eased himself down slowly on the rope, stopping when he was level with the window. It was a bathroom window and he was sure it would be unlocked. People seldom bother to lock bathroom windows and they also don't bother to put those pesky home security devices on them either, especially on apartments three floors above ground level.

Jake Nye, second story man par excellence, cat burglar nonpareil, had made a life of studying people and how they conducted their personal security affairs.

As a teenager Jake had decided he would be a burglar. He had decided it would be easier to live off the sweat of someone else's brow than to raise his own bodily temperature.

Jake was a nice, honest boy, any of the neighbors and most of the business people in town would tell you that. He actually came from a well-to-do household with hard working parents who had tried their best to instill in Jake the ethics of his Puritan forefathers. Jake had never been abused nor made to feel inadequate in any way. As a matter of fact he had been given quite a few of the good things in life even though his parents had cut back on their own pleasures occasionally in order for Jake to "fit in with the crowd."

Jake just could never quite grasp why he should have to pay taxes on money that he worked for. All the taxes and Social Security that was withheld from his paycheck just didn't seem fair to Jake. He felt that if he worked for it he should get all of it, let the government work for it's own money.

With these thoughts tossing around in his brain it wasn't long before Jake figured out that if he didn't report his income he wouldn't have to pay taxes on it. He would just operate with cash and there would be no way the government could track down how much he made. Besides, if he held down a part-time job he would have something to report and still be able to live the lifestyle that he desired because he would have a "legitimate" source of income.

He started his training in high school. No one would have guessed he was training for a career in burglary. He had gone out for the gymnastics team, even managed to win some championships for the school.

He spent several summers at mountain climbing schools learning how to rappel down a vertical wail and to climb back to the top of that same wail using the same rope with which he'd just descended.

Jake started his actual life of crime when a sophomore in high school, but, since he never pulled jobs less than six months apart it had taken the authorities two years to realize the crimes were being committed by only one person. By then Jake was on his way to bigger and better prospects.

He had refined his techniques over the years. Now, once inside an apartment, he could clean out all the valuables in seconds and be gone with no trace. His record was 47 seconds from entry to exit but that job hadn't yielded more than a couple of thousand do]lars, only enough for about a week of Jake's lifestyle.

Now, at 30, he was at the height of his profession.

Jake hung in front of the window and examined the casing both inside and out. There were no little telltale holes, wires or scratches to indicate a security device had been installed. He pushed lightly on the pane of glass testing the resistance. The window slid smoothly up. He pulled himself a little higher and swung in feet first, landing lightly and soundlessly on the floor.

He'd used somewhat the same entry a few years ago when he had entered the apartment of a young girl from the Midwest. Hicks made good victims. People fresh from the country never thought of putting security on their doors or windows and they usually kept large amounts of money and valuables around because they didn't trust banks.

Jake unclipped his carabiners and secured the rope at the side of the window with a piece of tape. He always liked to know exactly where the rope was in case he had to make a speedy exit.

He moved out of the bathroom and into the bedroom. A picture that had fallen face down on the dresser made him think of the girl again.

In one of the framed photos on her dresser she had been standing with her right arm around a horse and in her left hand she was displaying a large blue ribbon almost the color of her eyes. She had the fresh, healthy glow of a person who spent a lot of time outdoors. Her white teeth sparkled across a freckled face framed by dark curls. She looked to be about 15 in the picture and was wearing a funny white cap with a green clover or shamrock printed on it. He'd heard something once about that symbol, it was some kind of club for kids.

That had been the worst job he had ever pulled, his only mistake. He'd expected to find a hick country girl on vacation in the big city with a lot of money. Instead he had found just a hick country girl trying to make her way in the big city.

He had been half way across the living room on his way out of the apartment with his pitiful take when the door burst open and she walked in.

Jake had to admire her reactions. She had taken in the scene as she came through the door. Her hand, which had been in the process of dropping door keys into her purse, came back in sight with a little .380 automatic leveled unerringly at his chest.

She ordered him to stay put as she moved toward the telephone.

Jake had other ideas. He wasn't about to just let her turn him over to the police. He didn't think she would use the gun, people are seldom prepared to actua]ly shoot even though they threaten menacingly. Besides, if she did shoot, his chances were good that she would miss. Most people don't practice with a handgun and can seldom hit a moving target, even one the size of a man. Jake knew the odds and he was somewhat of a gambler when he needed to be, and this was one of those times when he certainly needed to be.

She stepped in front of the big picture window which gave a beautiful view of the city from the living room. When she glanced down at the telephone dial Jake threw the handful of jewelry at her. At the same time he dropped down and to his right, coiling his legs then launching himself toward the girl. He came up under the gun but his shoulder hit the girl in the stomach and propelled her backward through the window. She never made a sound. Her pretty head "splatted" on the cement below.

Jake thought he had gotten away clean but three blocks away a rookie cop stopped him. Something had made the cop suspicious, it was never made clear what, he had searched Jake and found a small locket which had been identified as one belonging to the dead girl.

Jake's attorney earned his pay on that one. He had proven an illega] search and seizure on the part of the rookie cop. The locket hadn't had any inscriptions or identifying marks so it couldn't be definitely tied to the girl and her boyfriend, even though he swore he'd given it to her only a few weeks before, couldn't positively identify it. Jake walked out of the courthouse breathing a huge sigh of relief.

The girl's family had never bothered to show up. During the trial it had come out that she had a brother overseas in the military who couldn't be located. Her parents had died years before in an explosion when a gas furnace had blown up during the night in their home in Iowa. In one of those freak happenings, the girl hadn't been injured in the blast.

Jake knew he'd gotten away with murder. He gave his attorney a hefty bonus so, should the need arise again, the attorney would always give his best effort.

Jake waited almost a year before pulling another job and was always very careful in picking his marks and setting up the situation to his liking. This job was being done with a little less planning than he would have liked but Jake figured this one would put him on easy street for a long time.

He moved toward the little stand at the side of the bed almost drooling with anticipation of the loot and at the ease of the job so far.

He had picked his mark only the night before. While sipping his usual evening beer in his favorite hangout he had overheard two men in the booth behind him.

One of the men was talking about how he had been left in charge of his family treasure. His grandmother had brought all this jewelry over with her when she had to flee Russia during the Bolshevik revolution. The old lady had died a few months back and now he was supposed to sell the jewelry and split the proceeds with his family.

He had already talked to one buyer who had offered two million for the set. He was going to have to keep the jewels in his apartment the next night because he had a late meeting with a buyer and it would be too late to put them in his safety deposit box at the bank. His friend had tried to talk him out of it. Even begging him to ca11 the dealer and change the time of the appointment.

The first man was sure there would be no problem. He lived in a highly secure apartment complex. No one could get in there without an invitation by one of the residents.

Jake smiled to himself. If the jewels were realiy worth two million he could get between forty and fifty percent of that with a good fence he knew, so the gains definitely outweighed the disadvantages of a rush job, besides, Jake was never totally unprepared. He always had contingency plans for just these occasions.

The next night found Jake letting himself over the edge of the roof of the "high security" apartment complex. The mark had gone out to eat dinner giving Jake at least an hour for a job that would take only seconds.

Now he stood at the head of the bed gazing down at the little nightstand where the jewels would be kept.

The drawer opened and Jake's hand went in. His fingers caressed what was obviously a necklace consisting of one large stone surrounded by smaller ones. He imagined how it would shine and sparkle in the sun light.

Pain lanced through his arm and he stepped back jerking his hand out of the drawer. Something seemed to be attached to the back of his hand. A living, twisting, piece of rope. He snapped his arm down and the thing fell to the floor.

The room was filled with a loud raucous buzzing. The bedroom lights snapped on and Jake spun around. In the doorway stood the would-be victim. He was holding a slender pole with a metal hook on the end. The pole was only about four feet long and didn't appear to be a weapon. Jake mentally prepared himself to battle his way out of the room anyway.

"See you've met Ramona." The man inclined his head towards Jake's feet.

Jake looked down at his feet. His blood turned to ice.

Only inches from his foot, coiled in a series of tight "S" curves, was a foot and a half long Western Prairie Rattlesnake. Jake slowly raised his arm. There were two holes on the back his hand, red blood oozing from each. Fang marks! He could feel the venom working it's way up his arm as he stood there.

The man moved into the room and stood at the foot of the bed diagonally from Jake. He leaned on the pole the way a man leans on a shovel while taking a break.

"Doesn't pay to get excited if you're rattler bit," he said. Jake started to move but as soon as he shifted his weight he felt another stab of pain in his ankle. He looked down as the snake recoiled from his leg and then crawled out of sight under the bed.

Why?" he asked.

The man reached behind him to the dresser. He picked up the picture that had been lying face down and turned it toward Jake.

Jake found himself staring at the blue eyes of a 15 year old girl hugging a horse with one arm and displaying a ribbon in the other hand. 'My sister." The voice was flat, noncommittal.

"You set me up." Jake's tongue felt like a cotton ball stuck to the roof of his mouth.

"Wasn't too hard. You're more greedy than you let on, Sport."

"Why now? You're her brother? You weren't at the trial."

"Name's Chris. Nope, I couldn't come to the trial. l was a little busy over in the Mid-East, a thing called 'Desert Storm'. They couldn't locate me because I was in a delicate position with a Special Forces 'A' team. But I'm back now and l think it's time my little sis got some justice...country style. She didn't deserve what you did to her."

Jake's face turned white. "I was cleared of all charges."

"No, you weren't cleared, Sport, you were let off through a legal technicality. Sometimes, back home, we've had things like that happen. That's when we have to take the law into our own hands just a little bit."

"You can't keep me here," Jake blustered. "I need medical treatment." He lifted his hand with the fang marks and waggled it.

Chris looked sorrowful. "Oh I won't keep you. Most rattler bites that are treated within a half hour or so from the time you're bit don't cause much problem at all but you might have a pretty mean scar and a lot of pain for a few days. The thing is, I figure you've got about a good twenty minutes before you can get help in this town, and we've already been standing here for about ten minutes, so it should be cuttin' it pretty close."

Jake started toward the door. Chris moved a little and Jake looked toward him again.

"Before you leave," said Chris. "You might also like to meet Ramona's boyfriend, Floyd."

The snake pole came up from the floor flipping a second rattler expertly through the air. The snake landed on Jake's chest and he felt the fangs sink into the base of his throat. His hands scrabbled at the scaly body, grasping it, jerking the writhing serpent free, throwing it to the floor.

"You said I could go," he cried.

Chris shrugged. "Just wanted to say good bye."

Jake ran.

He rushed into the bathroom reaching through the window for his climbing rope, hauling himself out into the cool night air not bothering to clip on his carabiners, just climbing hand over hand up the rope, the blood roaring in his ears.

He was almost to the top when his body twitched and went numb, his hands lost their hold on the rope. He fell silently, the only sound a "splat" as his head struck the pavement of the alley below. The same sound that had been made when a pretty country girl had fallen to her death only a few years before.

Chris watched him fall. He stood looking down toward the body in the alley.

"Forgot to mention," he mumbled toward the corpse. "If you panic and run, the venom works its way to the heart or the brain real fast. Then there just ain't no help for you. You die quick and painful."

He ducked back in and closed the window, he had a couple of snakes to catch.


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