Poking his head inside, he made a quick scan of the ceiling: all quiet on the magpie front. He left the pillow cases by the door and took the sheet and socks to the pool table. The sheet stretched over most of the playing surface but left a strip of green at each end.
“That should do,” he said, pushing all the balls to the centre of the table, beneath the sheet.
Every magpie watched.
Victor took two heavy bottles from the bar and used them to prop open the door. He dragged the pillow cases to the table, lifted them onto the felt and unknotted them under the cover of the sheet. With the pillow cases on their sides, he eased their contents onto the table. It was a slow and delicate process. Once they were emptied, Victor tossed the cases aside. He untied the ends of his socks, lifted a corner of the sheet, and tipped the pythons out; with a guiding nudge they slithered to the middle of the table. The magpies, though silent, ruffled their feathers and hopped to the edge of their nests. Victor guarded the table, keeping the sheet stretched out as best he could, and prodding the squirming hidden mass back to the centre of the table whenever it threatened to spill out. After five minutes, he lifted the edge of the sheet like a poker player checking his cards.
“That’s it. Now let’s see if this works.”
He grabbed a pillow case from the floor, took a cue rest with a cross shaped head from the cue rack, and returned to the table. Lifting the edge of the sheet again, he poked around beneath it with the cue rest, and eventually managed to hook what he was after. He drew it to the edge of the table, wrapped it in the pillow case, and then picked it up. Victor stepped back, clutching the secret treasure close to his chest; anxious claws edged out onto the branches above.
Head down, and with quick, steady paces, Victor crossed the tiles, a silent thief. He passed through the doorway and knelt in the hall; on the floor he deposited the goods smuggled in the pillow case: an albino python, bulging in the middle where it had swallowed an eight ball.
“There you go,” said Victor to the sluggish reptile. “Good job.”
From the pool room came a blood-curdling shriek, which ended abruptly with a enormous bang, like that of a gunshot. Victor rushed back. Five magpies were now whistling at the top of their lungs, while the sixth was gone, replaced in its high corner by a splattering of clear gel dripping from the branch and plastering the nearby wall and ceiling.
“It must have worked,” said Victor.
From the five remaining inhabited branches the magpies swooped. Victor dived to the floor, but then realised the birds were not aiming for him—they were flying to the pool table. He jumped up and ran over. The magpies, now grown to pelican size, landed on the table and began tearing and stabbing at the bed sheet with their beaks. Victor grabbed a cue from the floor and swung it as hard as he could, cracking one of the birds in the neck and skittling it off the table. The other magpies turned and spat a torrent of shoe polish at him. As he wiped the tar from his face, there was a loud rip on the table—the sheet split down the middle, torn between a tug-of-war of beaks. Bursting like intestines from some horrible stomach wound, two hundred snakes slithered and twisted out from the sheet, hissing and striking at the magpies, who squawked and flapped and struck back with their razor beaks. Blood spurted as the birds speared their prey, snatched them up like noodles, and sliced them clean in half. But the weight of reptile numbers ensured it would be no one-sided fight: the pythons soon caught and enveloped two magpies in their swarming strangle.
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