Hubby Ed Piwowarczyk made his debut at Noir at the Bar last night, joining Rick Blechta, David Chilton, J. Kent Messum, Jeffrey Round and Jessica L. Webb in the spotlight at Toronto’s Wallace Gastropub.
Here’s the excerpt he read from his noir tale “Snakebit” in 13 Claws:
Sadie motioned Turner to come over. “Meet Mateo Rodriguez. Best snake wrangler in Arizona.”
Rodriguez grinned and squeezed Turner’s hand. “Pleased to meet you, señor.”
Turner flinched and turned away from the small dark eyes boring into him.
Then Rodriguez fixed his gaze on the snake tattoo on Turner’s right forearm—a diamondback rattlesnake with an oversized head, fangs bared, coiled and ready to strike. “El serpiente. You like?” He laughed. “You have come to the right place.”
Turner flexed his fingers as Rodriquez released his grip.
Rodriguez turned to a cinder-block building and motioned Turner and Sadie to follow him. “Come! I have some work to do. Sadie, she has seen this many times, but you will find it interesting, señor.”
“How did you meet this guy?” Turner asked Sadie as they followed him.
“I used to ride horses out here when I was a teenager,” Sadie replied. “One day, my horse got spooked by a rattler. I was thrown, but luckily for me, Mateo was in the area hunting for snakes. He captured the rattler, calmed my horse and got me back to the base. The medic told me I was lucky I hadn’t been bitten and only had a few scrapes and bruises.
“I looked Mateo up to thank him. He showed me around his place and explained what he did. I became fascinated with his snakes and his work, and offered to help him in any way I could.”
“This is a business?”
“Quite profitable, actually.” Sadie paused. “I guess you could say Mateo became my mentor. I learned about snakes and the desert. We kept in touch after I went to college—and after I married Charlie.”
Rodriguez stopped in front of the cinder-block building. “Mi casa de serpientes. Wait here, por favor.”
“That’s Mateo’s snake house,” Sadie said. “He’s got about a dozen or more species in there, mainly rattlers, a couple of hundred snakes altogether. The interior is light- and temperature-controlled.”
Rodriguez emerged from the snake house with a few clear plastic bins, each holding a rattlesnake, and long-handled metal tongs with a C-shaped end.
“What’s he going to do?” Turner asked.
“Milk them.” Sadie laughed at Turner’s puzzled look. “Extract their venom.”
Using the tongs, Rodriguez lifted a snake about three and a half feet long from one of the bins. The rattler had brown blotches that stretched down its back and faded into white and black bands at its tail.
“That’s a Mojave rattler,” she said. “It has the most potent rattlesnake venom.” She paused. “There are two strains of Mojave rattler venom. One strain, considered the more lethal, attacks the nervous system; the other destroys red blood cells. Some Mojaves have strains of both.”
“What happens if one of them bites you?”
“Let’s see.” Sadie counted off on her fingers as she recited. “Shortness of breath, double vision, difficulty swallowing and speaking, nausea, weakness or paralysis of the lower limbs, involuntary tremors of facial muscles and respiratory failure.”
“How do you know this?”
“Research. I’ve learned to respect all rattlers. It’s best to stay out of their way.”
Rodriguez placed the snake on a foam pad on a small table. At the table’s edge was a glass funnel—its mouth covered by a thin, waxy membrane—suspended over a vial.
He grabbed the snake with his left hand and fit the snake’s fangs over the side of the funnel. The rattler bit the membrane, releasing a yellowish venom. With his thumb and middle finger, he depressed two glands near the reptile’s jaw to extract all the venom. Then he maneuvered the snake back into its bin.
Rodriguez repeated the procedure with more snakes that hissed and rattled to signal their displeasure, until the vial was about three-quarters full.
“All that trouble for that?” Turner remarked.
“Oro, señor,” Rodriguez replied as he capped the vial.
“Liquid gold,” Sadie said. “It’s worth thousands. He freeze–dries it and ships it to clinics, labs and universities. They use it for research and to make antivenom.”
Rodriguez beckoned them to follow him into the snake house. “Come! Let me show you my beauties.” He ushered them in and stopped to place the vial in a compact fridge. Then he pointed to racks along two walls. He smiled. “There are Mojaves, western diamondbacks, sidewinders, corals—”
“That’s it for me.” The snake house was creeping Turner out. “I’ll wait outside.”
Rodriguez shook his head in feigned disappointment and pointed at Turner’s tattoo. “Señor, I thought you might enjoy being among your own kind.”