Art Pact 138

The girl with he snake around her made her way slowly down the road, letting the reptile's huge and ominous head swing freely from the foot or so of body that extended past the point she was holding in her hand. Gregson watched warily from the other side of the road, at first not sure what he was seeing. The body of the red-yellow-and-green snake was wound in lazy loops around the girl's body. She was not skinny, but she was slight enough that Gregson thought the snake could easily have crushed her with a single spasm of its muscular body, and that it had got into position in which to do that. The girl seemed unconcerned, though, smiling happily and walking with a slow, relaxed pace - almost rhythmically, Gregson thought.

Her hair was long, and flowed with a gentle ripple behind her, spreading over her shoulders and the stretched form of the serpent alike, swaying gently in time with the movements of the snake's head. Every time her foot hit the ground the sake bobbed a little, and although it was too far away to see, Gregson was convinced that every time she swung it from side to side it turned its head a little and flickered out its tongue, tasting for the scent of something. It looked disturbingly as though the two of them were one creature, the girl a pair of legs that the snake had grown to speed up its search. It was searching, he could see that now - there was a look of intent about the beast, and now that he knew to look for it, a similar one on the girl's face, hidden behind the smile. Her eyes were not smiling, although the cast of them and the way they were shadowed under her fringe had made it look convincing until he had spotted the expression on the snake. That in itself was odd and disturbing to Gregson, the realisation that he had been fooled by the expression of a human, the expressions that everyone interprets hundreds of times a day, but had picked up on the expression of an animal that he (along with most people) would have described as completely expressionless.

Whether it was the gasps of the people around him that alerted him to the others or whether he simply allowed his focus to extend outwards from the girl who had captured it all in that bizarre moment, he suddenly became aware that ten feet or so behind the young girl was another snake-carrier, a teenage boy. When he had seen her before, coming out of the group at the market, she had been alone. That had been - what, four, five hours ago? It was difficult to remember. So much had happened, and so little, and he could not longer easily say whether it was even that day. She had definitely been alone, though, and although he had remarked on the snake at the time, it had not seemed so unusual - nor so much a apart of her. Then they had been an ordinary snake and an ordinary girl - albeit slightly extraordinary for the fact that she was carrying a snake. Now there was something much more sinister about them, and it was not just the intentness with which they seemed to be working on their plan, but something else - the mere fact that there were two of them made them seem more of a force, more of a threat. Had they come here together, or had they met in the town for whatever purpose they were about? He saw another - a middle-aged man this time, walking along about ten feet behind the boy. Gregson wondered whether he was the ring-leader, but he dismissed the idea as idiotic bigotry almost immediately. It was clear that the man was no more the controller of the group than the teenage boy was, and as he admitted that he knew with certainty again that it was the girl who was in control - or perhaps the snake the girl was holding, or even more likely the strange hybrid creature that the two of them seemed to Gregson to have become in the time since he'd first seen them. He began to walk along the pavement, pacing himself against the girl on the opposite curb. In front of him other pedestrians became static obstacles as they spotted the procession on the other side of the road, suddenly stopping to stare slack-mouthed across at the girl and her followers. Some began to point, some froze with worried looks on their faces, and some - Gregson noticed - just stopped and began to smile faintly. It was just the hint of a smile, the ghost of amusement or approval, but as he went Gregson began to see the same furtive grin again and again, and a nervy, uncomfortable feeling started to creep up from the base of his spine. He turned away to stand in the doorway of a darkened shop, and watched both the procession and the reactions of the others.

There were more of the snake holders than he had realised, he saw immediately. Behind the middle-aged man where two more young men - in their twenties, he thought, older than the girl - and behind them the first woman other than the leader. Behind her there was another woman, then a man in a business suit - including a briefcase, around which the tail of the snake was gently but firmly coiled. Then after that - Gregson froze, stunned. It was Boxer. For a moment his brain revolted, assuring him that there was no way it could be Boxer, that the barrow-boy wouldn't have been a member of some weird cult for this long without mentioning it, that he must have a brother. But it was Boxer all right, there was no mistaking the man's blunt features. This morning, when Gregson had spoken to him at length, he had been his own man. Now he was part of the strange snake-handling procession, and smiling the same furtive smile. Gregson understood, and knew that he must get away fast.


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