For a moment Victor was stuck—crouched against the wall, breathing heavily, hands trembling—his eyes on the painting. The sixth deep clang of the bell shook him free. He exhaled with a laugh and nodded, looking at the officer in the painting.
“I’ve got your number now,” he said.
He crept behind the chair nearest him and gathered up the serpent-filled sock next to it. On his hands and knees, he scanned the floor about him but could not find the other sock. He crawled around the chairs—strike seven of the bell—and checked the bearskin rug and the fireplace.
“Hmm. Looks like I’ve lost a snake. Sorry about that, buddy. I’ll come back tomorrow and find you.”
Victor crawled next to the wall, under the mirror, toward the door to the hall. Strike eight rang out. He turned the doorknob, taking a final look at the room behind him, and made a second glance at one of the chairs. He released the doorknob, ran a few steps toward the chair, then dove and dragged himself over the slick floor on his elbows. He reached beneath the chair and retrieved his other sock.
A mad scramble back over to the door and Victor turned the doorknob. The hall was barely lit; he looked both ways, unable to see the ends of the corridor. Seeing no sign of any beast, he tucked the shape-shifting socks under one arm as best he could and stepped cautiously into the hall. As nimble as a kung fu master walking on rice paper, Victor proceeded toward the open bedroom door across the hall to his right, just a few metres away. Tenth toll. His eyes tried to pierce the darkness up ahead, but the shadow at the end of the passage was impenetrable. Though his steps were light, one of the floorboards was sensitive, and, halfway across the hall, as Victor set the ball of his foot down, the floor creaked. He froze, held his breath and listened. The socks squirmed in his arm. The eleventh toll thundered and Victor breathed again. He set one foot out before him, and then, behind him, a footstep hit the floor. It had the pad of a paw and the tap of claws. He halted again. There was a soft, croaking voice, like pained breathing. Another threatening footstep tapped. With the twelfth stroke of the bell, Victor heard a vicious snarl, and the clawed footsteps sliding and scratching over the floor, before turning into a gallop. Without looking back Victor darted for the bedroom. He crashed through the door at full pace, clipping the door jamb with his shoulder and spilling the socks. Victor slammed the door shut and leaned his weight against it. A battering ram crashed against the door, throwing Victor to the floor; he winced and grabbed his shoulder. Amid a ferocious chorus of snarls, growls and crows, a hammering barrage shook the door. Claws tore at its outside; inside, the timber began to splinter as the hinges squealed and bent. Victor grabbed the stool, stood up and raised it above his head, ready to strike whatever was about to break through…
The assault stopped. Outside there was a cluck, and then the heavy footsteps tapped away back down the hall. Victor dropped the stool and collapsed onto the floor. He laid there on his back and laughed.
“Oh man, what a day.”
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