As Victor crouched and placed the snake on the floor, a mini-explosion boomed behind him. He rubbed his ears and opened and closed his jaw.
“Damn, that was loud,” he yelled.
He re-entered the pool room and saw a transparent, gelatinous puddle where the injured magpie had lain. As he walked past the puddle, he stepped in a stray drop and stopped. He lifted his foot and wiped off the goo with his hand; he squeezed the substance and then hurriedly wiped his hand on his boxer shorts.
He tiptoed around the puddle and returned to the pool table. The last living magpie was picking snakes one by one from the table and tossing them to the floor; it had eliminated about a quarter of the pile. Victor crept up behind the bird, slipped his arm around its neck, and secured it in a tight choke hold.
Had the magpie been human instead, Victor’s perfectly executed hold would have incapacitated it in moments. But the magpie was not human. It warbled, almost in the manner of a laugh, and then whipped its head around one hundred and eighty degrees, clubbing Victor in the ear with the base of its beak. He toppled to the floor, and the magpie went back to sorting pythons.
It took Victor a few seconds to gather his senses, and then he stood up and climbed onto the table. He knelt and began shovelling snakes off the table with his hands, enduring half a dozen bruising blows across his back from the magpie’s beak. With most of the snake pile spilled onto the floor, the magpie squawked and flapped down to resume its search.
Two soggy, feathery carcasses remained on the table, amid a few straggling pythons. Victor lifted one bird and dumped it overboard. He lifted the second bird, and beneath it, squirming in blood, were two curled snakes—each one bulging in the middle. Victor placed the dead magpie back on top of the snakes, and peered over the edge of the table: the live magpie was occupied with the snakes on the floor. He removed the dead magpie again and scooped up the two bloated snakes, then slipped off the table like a cat and crept for the door. He crossed the room unnoticed, and deposited the pythons in the hallway. Two mighty cracks barked out. The two dead birds had become superglue.
The final magpie pecked the snakes on the floor. Victor ran up and kicked it like a football. With a thump and a squeak the magpie rocketed across the room and came to a skidding halt by the wall. The bird laid there, lifeless. Victor watched it for a moment then breathed out a relieved laugh.
He knelt down and began picking through the pythons. After a long search, he spotted it, lodged in the throat of a tiny snake: the last billiard ball. He picked up the snake by the tail.
“How did you swallow that?” he said.
He looked about the floor; it was a war zone. Nearly two hundred snakes lay dead; a handful wallowed, mortally wounded, in their own blood; a couple had survived the battle, and now slithered away from the carnage. Victor shook his head in wonder. The little snake in his hand wriggled and flicked itself about.
“All right, settle down,” said Victor. “I’ll just put you in the hall.”
He stood up and turned toward the open door. A sudden rustle behind him gave him just enough time to brace before a battering ram between the shoulder blades knocked him to the floor . The final magpie—not as dead as Victor had assumed—flapped down in front of him. Victor lay there, gasping for breath and clinging to the tiny python; the magpie waited, staring at him. After a minute, and still smarting from the flying head butt, Victor made a lunge at the cocky bird, but only fell flat on the floor.
“Oh no.” He tried to push himself up; he tried to roll over; he kicked out with his legs. “Sh**,” he sighed, and slumped on the tiles.
The magpie’s long talons scraped the floor as it stepped closer to Victor, who was trapped, his left knee sunken into a blob of quick-setting superglue.
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