Jennifer was waiting for her when she put her key in the lock.
‘Well?’ she demanded, before Beth had even got through the door. ‘Did you get any?’
Beth answered in a dull monotone. ‘Yes, I’ve got you some.’
Jennifer jiggled like a little girl whose mummy had just brought home the latest Glee DVD. ‘Let’s see it, then. Come on Beth, give it to me.’ She was impatient. Beth took the vials of morphine from her handbag and laid them on the coffee table. ‘You have no idea what it has cost me stealing those for you.’
‘Oh, do you have to pay for stolen goods these days? Seriously, though, you didn’t get caught did you? Nobody saw you? That could ruin everything.’
‘No, nobody saw me,’ she replied in the same dull monotone and had been about to explain that she had just sold out on everything that she claimed to hold dear but realised it would be wasted breath, Jennifer had stolen her integrity, but what was the point in saying so? In her self absorption, she didn’t care.
Jennifer scooped up the vials and held one to her face. She beamed with pleasure. Peering into the tiny amount of clear liquid, she gave a cross-eyed smile. ‘Good day’s work, Bethie. Will you be able to get this much every day?’
‘I’m not getting any more.’ Still there was no intonation, no inflection, not even any emotion in her voice.
Jennifer laughed. The sound was too loud in the stillness of the room. ‘Oh, don’t start all that again, it’s a waste of time and we both know it. Of course you’re going to get more, lots more lovely drugs so that we can move on to the next stage.’
‘If you’re planning to take it yourself, it’ll kill you.’ Beth wanted her to take it. All of it. She would have gladly stolen more – as much as she could get to take this monster out of her life – but right now, she was beyond feeling anything and only gave the warning because she was a nurse and nursing is a vocation. It couldn’t be left behind at the hospital doors and she’d be failing in her duty if she didn’t advocate precaution when handing out stolen class A drugs.
Jennifer looked genuinely bemused that Beth could even consider the idea. ‘Don’t be so ridiculous, I’m not going to take them myself. Is that what you were hoping, Beth? Do you want me to kill myself, let you off the hook, relieve you of all responsibility? No, I don’t want to know. I want to believe that you love me. You’re all I have.’
Beth didn’t respond.
‘It’s an interesting concept though, isn’t it?’ Jennifer continued, her eyes narrowing, brow pulling together in thought while her attention remained fixed on Beth’s face, studying her and gauging every minute facial expression. ‘I mean, what if you had to play God and choose to save one person’s life over another? For instance, if you had to choose between your mother and your father, who would be allowed to live and which of them would you let die?’
Beth was used to these morbid flights of fancy. She was listening, but thinking her own troubled thoughts.
‘Come on, answer me, which one?’
‘Oh, don’t be ridiculous, it’s a stupid question. My parents are both dead. You know that. And if they weren’t, I’d never be able to choose one over the other. Just give me some space, please, Phantom. I’m not in the mood for your mind games tonight.’
‘All right, then, let’s make it simpler. Maggie and her ex husband Colin Johnson. Only one of them can live, but in order to save that person the other one has to be sacrificed. Which one?’ Her eyes were dancing and her tone had become more persistent.
Beth’s patience was worn and she snapped back. ‘Haven’t you got some death’s-head poetry to write or something? Just leave me alone, will you?’
‘Not until you answer me. If you had to pass sentence on Colin or Maggie, which would it be?’
Beth sighed. ‘Colin of course. Maggie and I have been friends since we were six. If I had to choose whose life I would save, it would be Maggie.’
‘But I wasn’t asking who you would save. I was asking which of them you would kill.’
‘Oh, I’ve had enough of this.’ Beth stood up and walked towards the door.
‘So be it. The cloth is cut.’ Jennifer was being cryptic and Beth couldn’t be bothered humouring her. She ignored the remark and, foregoing anything to eat or drink, made for the solitude of her bedroom.
Days turned into weeks and Beth stole enough morphine and other drugs to stock a pharmacy. For the most part there was no noticeable difference in the status or wellbeing of her patients. She commented on this one evening to Jennifer.
‘That is so negligent,’ Jennifer said. ‘It just goes to show how hospitals overprescribe drugs.’
On the rare occasions that a patient did repeatedly wake, writhing in agony, they would be labelled ‘low pain threshold’ or ‘high drug tolerance’ and their medication would simply be upped to accommodate the change. No questions were ever asked and Beth learned to breathe normally on drug rounds with the consultants.
‘People should be allowed to experience pain,’ mused Jennifer. ‘It’s their right. They shouldn’t be denied it. I’d want to feel it.’
Beth just smiled.
Some days Beth couldn’t steal anything and she would incur the wrath of Phantom. Other days she brought home the bacon and a few chops on the side and it was smiles all round. Eventually she stopped asking what the drugs were for. She didn’t care. She only ever asked when it would end. She admitted to herself that as the weeks had passed without her getting caught it had become easier. Now her conscience pricked less and her need for survival carried her through the days. In bed, when she was alone with her demons, she mused that Phantom was the perfect nickname for Jennifer because since the day that girl had taken over her life she had become haunted.
Magenta was fat. Beth commented on it to Jennifer. ‘Yes, I’ve noticed that, too. I know what’s happening. The female is always the dominant rat. You see, the greedy cow’s taking all the food and leaving Riff Raff with nothing.’ Beth had been horrified and ran her hands over Riffy’s body to check for starvation or malnutrition. He didn’t seem any different but Beth had noticed that Magenta had become very nasty with him. They had always slept together curled around each other’s body like lovers in the night, but now, if Riffy tried to get into the bedding box she screeched at him and turned him out to sleep in a corner of the cage by himself. ‘She’s just a fat bully,’ said Jennifer with the air of one who knows. ‘Perhaps we should separate them for a week or two. That usually restores the balance; she’ll miss him.’
The following day, Beth bought a smaller cage and Riffy was shown into his new home. He seemed happy enough – but then, he hadn’t seemed unhappy with his previous hen-pecked existence. The rats only really became agitated when Jennifer brought Darklord into the living room and insisted on taunting them by letting him slither over their cages. The rats would take fright and hide in their bedding boxes while Darklord tried desperately to squeeze through the bars to reach them. His tongue would flicker constantly, tasting the smell of lunch but not being able to locate it. Afterwards Jennifer would have to headlock him to stop him from biting out at her in frustration. Beth told her it was cruel, but Jennifer would just laugh at Beth and taunt her for her continued fear of the snake.
Jennifer pounced on Beth as she walked through the door. It had become a ritual. ‘Well, what did you manage to get today?’
‘I told you this morning that I wouldn’t be able to get anything because I was being shadowed by an examiner for my upgrade.’
Jennifer pulled a face. ‘You should have given her the slip and tried harder.’
‘Yes, and if I got caught and ended up without a job – and my ass hauled in jail to boot – then where would we be?’
Jennifer stomped into the living room in a foul mood. Beth heard her banging up the stairs a few minutes later. She was obviously still in a rage, so it was with some surprise that she answered the girl when she shouted sweetly from the top of the stairs, ‘Beth, could you come up a minute please, hun? I’ve got something to show you.’
After knocking on the bedroom door and being told to go in, Jennifer motioned for Beth to sit down. Forgetting momentarily about the potatoes she had been peeling, Beth sat on the edge of the bed. Jennifer’s moods usually lasted much longer than a few minutes and Beth was just grateful that something had distracted the temperamental teenager.
‘Well,’ she said with a smile, ‘what’s up?’
Jennifer was holding Riff-Raff and stroking him lovingly. ‘He’s such a character, isn’t he?’ she cooed. ‘So gentle and curious about everything. It’s such a shame.’
‘What is?’ asked Beth, returning her smile. Jennifer had crossed the room and was standing beside Darklord’s vivarium. The snake, sensing motion and smelling rat on his flickering tongue, had already begun to uncurl.
‘That he has to die,’ said Jennifer. With a deft movement she put the key into the glass lock, turned it and slid open the door six inches. She did it all smoothly and with one hand while still cradling Riff-Raff in the other.
She grabbed the rat by the tail and cruelly swung him from her supporting hand. Shocked, he screamed and writhed, trying to curl his body back up to safety. If Jennifer hadn’t moved so quickly the weight of his body hanging suspended from his tail would have de-gloved the skin leaving just the bone. Given a week, that would have desiccated and dropped off if he hadn’t died from shock or infection before then. But Riff-Raff didn’t have a week to live.
In the second that it took for Beth to cry out and rise from the bed, Jennifer, with a deftness borne of practice, had forced the frightened rat through the gap in the vivarium door and dropped him onto a log at the mercy of Darklord. Riff-Raff sensed death the second his feet touched down.
‘Oh, my God, what the hell are you doing? Get him out. Get him out of there.’
The snake was excited; he’d unwound the top third of his body and his eyes were fixed on the rat. Riff-Raff was petrified. He was staring at the snake, whiskers erect, body trembling. Darklord was moving towards him, slowly, psyching his meal out, only his flickering tongue giving away any impression of urgency. It was moving with lightning rapidity, sensing out the rat, smelling and tasting the air. He was within a foot of his prey.
Darklord lifted his head so that he rose from eye level with the rat to look down on him from half a foot above. The snake’s head swayed slightly, almost imperceptibly in a slow, hypnotic rhythm.
Beth was screaming but couldn’t move. She wanted to rush to the vivarium, pull open the door and thrust her hand in to retrieve the terrified rat, but she couldn’t. Her fear of Darklord was too great. Any sudden movement and the snake was going to lunge with frightening speed. She’d be badly bitten not only by the snake but also by the rat if she even got as far as grabbing him. Only Jennifer would have the guts to put her hand into the snake’s domain. ‘It’s going to kill him. The bastard’s going to kill Riff-Raff.’ She was sobbing, tears streaming down her face. ‘Please, Jennifer, do something.’ Jennifer didn’t respond, didn’t say anything. It seemed as though the hypnotic swaying of the snake and its prey had entranced her. She stood erect, a small smile turning up the edges of her mouth, her eyes animated.
Darklord was within striking range. He pulled his head back. Beth shrieked in despair. Riff-Raff shrieked in terror. Jennifer shrieked in delight.
Before the snake had even touched the rat he let out a single high pitched scream made more grotesque by the fact that he hadn’t made any attempt to move. He instinctively knew that any effort to save himself was futile.
The snake struck, moving only the first foot and a half of his length. Beth gasped and held her breath. Her hands flew to her mouth, not quite making it all the way up to cover her eyes. There was complete silence in the room, broken only by the sound of Jennifer breathing steadily and deeply.
The snake was unbelievably fast, but Riff-raff, despite being in shock and stilled by fear and the swaying movement of Darklord, was attuned and ready for the movement. The instinct of survival had overtaken conscious reasoning. Darklord’s mouth was open as he struck, his upper body blurred with the speed of his lunge. As his head made contact with the quivering form of the trembling rat, Riff-Raff squealed and jumped vertically up into the air. He landed on the snake's back.
Darklord spun, infuriated. He hissed loudly and recoiled in anger. Lashing out at the rat, he just missed him as Riff-Raff bounced all over the vivarium in a blind and furious panic.
His next attack missed completely and, as the rat took flight, Darklord grazed his own body with the sharp impaling fangs. Raff-Raff jumped and scurried up one of the thick branches.
Darklord was frenzied. He didn’t stalk the rat but made a third fast strike. He wanted to tire the animal. On the branch the prey was still trembling, but now his reaction to the snake was different. Whereas before he was unable to move and his fear held him fast to the spot, now he knew that there was nowhere to move to. His eyes were darting while still never leaving the breadth of the snake, always aware of his positioning within the vivarium but still seeking any means of flight. His mouth was open, clearly showing his sharp fangs. His body heaved from the diaphragm with the effort of panting and his rapid heartbeat was visible as it beat furiously through his fur.
Darklord was moving again. He needed to get the rat down from the branch to enable him to constrict around its body easily once he had him impaled. Riff-Raff didn’t let him get close this time and leaped from the branch, scurrying into the farthest corner of the vivarium. This final flight sealed his fate. He was open and exposed. Darklord had him cornered and moved in quickly to stake his claim.
He struck with precision a fourth and final time, taking the rat by the side of his neck. As suddenly as it had begun the war dance was over. Riff-Raff kicked out wildly with his back legs but only fought against air. The snake was too experienced and wily to expose part of his body where it could be kicked and clawed. He held Riff-Raff to the floor of the vivarium with the muscles in his jaw and quickly the mass of his body moved over and around the rat, encircling him quickly. Riff-Raff had screamed as the fangs pierced his neck and he’d tried to twist away from the grip of the snake but it was a wasted effort. As the snake wrapped his thick body around the rat, Riff-Raff’s small, black eyes bulged from their sockets and his tongue was forced from his mouth. The snake’s mouth was open showing pure white convex fangs. Still holding the rat tightly by the neck, Darklord loosened his coils a hair’s breadth allowing Riff-Raff the luxury of a deep inhalation.
The rat gasped greedily for air, taking in a huge lungful. Then, before he could exhale, Darklord went in for the death cuddle. He tensed all his muscles and increased the pressure upon the creature, tightening his coils and pulling them into a taut blanket around the dying rat’s body. Riff-Raff knew that it was hopeless. He gave up struggling and waited for death to relieve him of his suffering. His eyes bulged deeply out of their sockets as the pressure was increased.
All he could do was fix his eyes through the glass of the vivarium and plead beseechingly for help from his owners. Beth let out her captive breath. She hadn’t breathed once since Darklord had made his first strike. Now she was yelling incoherently through her sobs. ‘You bitch, you bitch! How could you do this to him?’ She knew that it was already too late. The rat was crushed with bone-breaking force beneath the snake’s coils, his internal organs squeezed and bursting. He wouldn’t survive now even if they could get him out. ‘Do something, please! Please, Jennifer, do something.’
Riff-Raff’s insides were crushed long before he went limp. Immense coils gradually increased the pressure upon his heart. It took ages for him to die and although Beth wanted to turn and run she felt compelled to watch. Hatred for both Jennifer and her bastard snake burned inside her body. The python increased his hold for another minute. A kill was to be savoured.
From the second he had made the first coil, his gastric acids had begun to prepare themselves for breaking down the flesh, fur and bones of the rat.
A minute after Riff-Raff was dead; Darklord pulled his long curled fangs from the rat’s neck. They made a loud plopping sound as they came away from the prey’s flesh. The snake uncurled and looked at his prize.
He seemed lazy now that the kill was over. He was taking his time, enjoying his moment. He glided several times over the recumbent body of the rat. Much as a mortician measures his corpse, so Darklord measured his kill. He nudged it with his blunt nose down both sides and along its rump, straightening the rat out, making it streamlined. Once the carcass was in line, the snake gauged the size of his lunch. When he was entirely satisfied with the position and sizing of his meal he moved very slowly towards the rat’s nose.
Lining himself up, he raised his head off the floor and opened his mouth, slowly. With extended maw he moved his lower mandible several times to either side, dislocating his jaw so that it fell back as though on a hinge. He seemed to be yawning as his mouth opened steadily wider. The Jacob’s organ, a tube that allows a snake to breathe when his windpipe is completely covered by the carcass of his kill, glistened white along the bottom of his mouth. He was ready to begin the slow business of swallowing his prize. He took the rat’s nose into his mouth. Gradually, by moving his mouth side to side, the rat’s head sunk further in until its nose had passed into Darklord’s neck.
At that point, Darklord stopped and contracted every muscle in his body, as he squeezed down on the carcass of the kill. It moved slightly further down the snake’s gullet. He opened his mouth, stretched it a little further and moved the rat an inch further in. This cycle of inching his catch down his digestinal tract was repeated, clenching muscles and taking the prey down with brute force. Alternating between mouthing up the rat’s body and using his muscles to manoeuvre it down his gullet, the rat slowly began to disappear inside Darklord. By the time the snake had reached the large rat’s shoulders, Darklord’s skin around the bulge of the kill stretched until it became translucent.
Beth was convinced that the snake was going to split. She willed it, wanting to watch the snake die in front of her eyes as Riff-Raff had. Darklord’s markings had become elongated, much as the pattern on a lycra dress stretches on an obese body.
It took the snake twenty minutes to swallow the rat and then he lay with the obscene bulge gradually moving down the inside of him. Beth could trace Riff-Raff’s, head, feet and body through the skin of the snake.
Darklord was sated, and would not feed again for ten days. Beth didn’t feel as though she’d ever eat again.
The black spurs either side of Darklord’s cloaca dug into the soft substrate. He stretched his dislocated jaw a couple more times. With an audible click he snapped it back into position. Slowly, he slithered back into his fibreglass cave. For the next couple of days he would be watchful, dangerous, at his most vulnerable. He lay in the darkness of the cavern and slept.
Beth had never seen such cold cruelty, she hated the snake but he was only following his instincts. The real focus of her anger was turned towards Jennifer. She tried to swallow down the fury inside her; she genuinely wanted to find out what drove the girl. ‘I don’t understand what’s inside you. What part of you is it that’s so evil? Has it always been there? Is it some kickback reaction to the blows that life has dealt you? Do you want to be like this or is there some part of you that wants to change and be a good person?’
‘Oh, Beth, don’t be so infantile. You see everything in such black and white terms. The rat’s no big deal. We’ve still got Magenta and I have a surprise for you when we go downstairs. Hell, I’ll buy you another rat if it meant that much to you. Come on, come and see what I’ve got for you.’
‘When is this going to end, Jennifer? I want you to leave my house. I just want you to go and get out of my life.’
‘Stop sulking, Beth, or I’m going to get angry and I’m in such a good mood tonight. You know I can’t leave here; we’re inextricably tied together now. There is too much between us for us to ever be apart. How could either one of us trust the other not to talk? We need to keep a close eye on each other, don’t we, Beth? It’s just the way it is. And anyway, all best friends fall out sometimes; it’s perfectly natural and just makes the friendship stronger. Don’t make me use the Morphine on you, Beth, because you know that I will. Now come on, stop being horrible.’
Jennifer left the room but Beth made no move to follow her. Instead she went into the bathroom and knelt in front of the toilet waiting for the moment when her stomach would empty. Afterwards she stood and washed her face with cold water. She cleaned her teeth, brushed her hair and felt no better. She truly understood what it meant to feel desolate.
She walked into the living room with a sense of dread. She didn’t want to see Jennifer, didn’t want to have to speak to her. She felt as trapped as Riff-Raff had been in the snake’s vivarium.
She heard the unfamiliar noises as soon as she entered the room. Jennifer was sitting on the armchair nearest the rat cage with a self-satisfied grin on her face. ‘Well, about time. Come on. Come see what we’ve got. Thirteen of them,’ she said. Jennifer pointed to the rat cage.
Beth couldn’t see much, magenta was inside her bedding box and the multiple high pitched squeals came from there. ‘See, I told you it didn’t matter about Riff-Raff. Magenta’s had a littler of babies. Don’t you see? We’ll save a fortune in snake food. This is the start of our breeding empire. We can set up more cages and breeding boxes in the garage. We’ll keep one male and all of the females from each litter. We can introduce new bloodlines later. We’ll grow the males out until they’re fully grown and then use them to feed Darklord. He so enjoys live food.’
Beth’s brain was taking a minute to catch up with the excited ramble. ‘Stop. For God’s sake, stop. I don’t want to be over run with rats. And after seeing the suffering that you inflicted on Riff-Raff today, how can you even contemplate putting other animals through that?’
‘Ah, I expected the pious, holier-than-thou act. Who went to the pet shop and bought three frozen rats for Darklord last week? Let me think! Yes, that would be you. Of course those rats didn’t suffer, did they, Bethie? Taken from their mothers too young, farmed in battery boxes, fifty to a foot square box. Do you know they literally eat each other when they go mad with sheer frustration? And then they are put into a tank and gassed. No, of course those animals don’t suffer. They’re just born neatly frozen in cellophane.’
Beth was just a rat. She looked ahead and saw no way that she could ever be free from this monster or the terrible course of events her life had taken.
Since that first suicidal moment weeks earlier, Beth had been thinking ever more often about how it would be best to end her life. It would take five seconds to fill her vein with enough morphine to kill ten men. The end would be quick and painless. Jennifer made her life unbearable, but worse was the guilt that she had to live with daily.
If only she wasn’t such a coward.