He took the ball from the net and looked at it in his hand.
“There has to be something here I’m not seeing.”
A sudden whoosh swept behind him, shooting a chill through his bones. He ducked quick enough to evade the long beak hurtling like a spear toward the back of his head, but not quick enough to escape the heavy whip of a giant wingtip between his shoulder blades. He crashed forward onto the tiles, gasping; the pool cue and ball spilled from his hands. With a hop and a skip, a magpie touched down a few feet in front of him. Victor took the opportunity while its back was turned to drag himself beneath the shelter of the table. The bird, like the one that had previously swooped, had grown during its descent to four or five times its natural size. It preened a couple of wing feathers, and then stepped over to the wall by the bar, where the rolling billiard ball had come to rest. With surprising tenderness, the black and white menace nudged the ball out from the wall with its beak, and then cradled it in the hooked claws of one foot. Victor, having recovered his breath, crawled out from under the table and picked up the pool cue. He approached the bird, holding the cue ahead of him like a bo staff. When the magpie caught sight of him it raised itself up and spread its wings. A hideous, horror movie scream burst from its gaping beak, startling Victor three paces back. Apparently satisfied with Victor’s retreat, the magpie ceased shrieking and lowered its wings, although it kept a disturbing stare upon him.
“This just gets weirder,” muttered Victor.
The magpie leaned forward and gave a sudden cough, spitting a black liquid toward Victor. He jumped aside, but not before the strange tar splattered his right lower leg. On the floor, yelling in panic, he dragged his leg over the tiles but the black substance clung to him. After a few frantic seconds, Victor sat up. His breathing steadied. He ran a fingertip through the black goo and examined it. He squeezed it between his thumb and finger, and then smelled it.
“Seriously? Shoe polish?” He sighed. “I should be thankful, I suppose. Could’ve been worse.”
The magpie, its talons curled around the ball, flapped across the room and onto the pool table. Victor watched on. The massive bird placed the ball on the felt and unwrapped its claws, one by one, from it as though it were made of glass. It brushed the tip of its beak over the ball, and then skipped forward, flapped, and took to the air. Wide, fearsome wings spread like sails as the magpie circled low. Three laps around the room and it rose to the ceiling, returning to regular magpie size as it alighted upon its branch.
Victor stood up, his eyes following the volatile creature. Once the magpie settled in its nest, he turned his gaze to the pool table, and the six balls resting upon it.
“What’s the connection here?” he asked himself.
He circled the table and stopped at the head cushion. His fingers drummed the rail.
“What is it? What’s with these magpies? It’s like they’re protective of—” he looked up at the branches. “Well, that’s a thought. Nesting birds.”
He reached and placed his hand on one of the balls; a magpie sang out. He gripped the ball—while keeping it on the table—and watched the bird. It hopped to the edge of its nest and stared back at him. Victor squeezed the ball… and then threw it high in the air. He ducked under the table on his hands and knees and waited, listening. There was something like a rush of wind, and flapping, but the billiard ball never came down. After a silent moment, heavy footsteps paced the table above Victor. There was a gentle clunk, a scratch, a soft whistle, and then silence again. He waited.
© 2019 MILES VENISON ALL RIGHTS RESERVED