Two weeks ago, when a man returned a 1987 Nissan to Crystal City's Budget Rent-A-Car office, he mentioned that his misplaced boa constrictor might be hiding in the car somewhere. Apparently, no one looked closely enough.

Yesterday, searching the car for the source of a pungent smell, a maintenance worker solved the mystery of the missing boa. When he removed the car's glove compartment, he discovered the snake's four-foot-long dead body curled up behind the dash.

"When I pulled the glove box, the {snake's} tail fell down," said Rod McIntosh, who admits doing a good backward sprint.

"Guns, drugs, bullet holes -- we get those a lot," said security manager Jim McCarthy. "This is definitely the first snake."

The woman who rented the car, Rose Gray, 25, of Largo, was contacted late yesterday by car rental officials, who informed her that the snake had died.Gray said the snake belonged to a friend of her sister's and that the boa slithered behind the dash while the three of them were on a drive.

"It was scary," Gray acknowledged. She said she and her sister jumped out of the car immediately. "After the snake got up in the dash, we made him take it {the car} back because I wasn't going to drive the car with the snake in it."

Snake tale accounts differ somewhat around the office at 1200 S. Eads St.

According to McIntosh, car rental employees gave the car a quick search two weeks ago. Unable to find the lost boa, they dismissed the information as a joke and transfered the car to one of the company's Baltimore offices.

"Evidently the car sat in the sun up there and started smelling," said McIntosh. "They didn't have the facilities to check it out up there, so they sent it back down here."

However, service manager Michael Murray said company records indicate the Nissan 300 ZX never left the Crystal City lot.

In any event, it was the unhappy task of McIntosh and two mechanics to disassemble the car yesterday morning and find the source of the smell.

"A lot of surprising things happen around here, but this is right up there at the top," said General Manager Robert Forshay Jr.

Laurie Bingaman, a staff member at the National Zoo's reptile house, said she gets about a half dozen calls a year from people who have lost snakes in cars.

The snakes are "in unfamiliar surroundings so they're scared," she said. "The best thing you can do when you're a scared snake is to hide."

What's the best way to find them?

"You have to start taking the car apart," Bingaman said. "There is no such thing as a snake attractant. Once they get into something as complex as a car . . . they don't know how to find their way out."

With the recent frosty weather, Bingaman assumed the cold-blooded creature could have developed respiratory problems and frozen to death. She said a four-foot boa constrictor would be about 5 years old.