Table of Contents
Praise for Tom Holt
âHighly readable silliness' SFX
âUniquely twisted . . . cracking gags'
Rob Grant, THE GUARDIAN
âFrantically wacky and wilfully confusing . . . gratifyingly
clever and very amusing' MAIL ON SUNDAY
âDazzling' TIME OUT
âWildly imaginative' NEW SCIENTIST
âFrothy, fast and funny' SCOTLAND ON SUNDAY
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright Â© The One Reluctant Lemming Co. Ltd. 2007
Cover illustration by Parin Shah. Cover copyright Â© 2012 by Hachette Book Group, Inc.
All rights reserved. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher is unlawful piracy and theft of the author's intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher at [email protected] Thank you for your support of the author's rights.
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First US e-book edition: September 2012
Also by Tom Holt
Expecting Someone Taller
Who's Afraid of Beowulf?
Here Comes the Sun
Faust Among Equals
Odds and Gods
Paint Your Dragon
Wish You Were Here
Snow White and the Seven Samurai
Nothing But Blue Skies
The Portable Door
In Your Dreams
Earth, Air, Fire and Custard
You Don't Have to be Evil to Work Here, But It Helps
The Better Mousetrap
May Contain Traces of Magic
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Sausages
For Mike Hughes,
ee small hours of a cold, moonlit night; last call of the shift, nothing more urgent than a drunk with a broken leg, so no need to floor the pedal or burn rubber on the way back to the hospital. In the front passenger seat, the driver's mate glances at the wing mirror.
âThere's a dog following us,' he observes.
There's a slight edge to his voice, which makes the driver check his own mirror. âThey do that,' the driver says, frowning as he speaks. âMore in the country than in town, butâ'
The driver nods. âAlsatian, right?'
âYeah. Or one of them - what're they called? You know, they pull sleighs.'
The driver's frown deepens. âReindeer?'
Behind them, the big dog runs, red tongue lolling. The driver checks his speed - just legal - and feels his right foot nudge the pedal just a little harder, for some reason. Then the mirror again. Big dog still there. Big dog apparently not bothered.
âThere's another one - look.'
The driver can't look just now, since he needs to keep his eyes on the road as they round a corner. When he has attention to spare again, he sees not two big dogs, but three.
âWhat speed are you doing?' the driver's mate asks.
. The driver's right foot urges the pedal down, and he reaches forward to flip on the siren. Two or three seconds pass before he looks again. Still there. Three big dogs. Four.
âShit,' says the driver's mate, with feeling.
Just as well there's no traffic on the roads, in the suburbs at four in the morning.
, the driver can't help thinking as he nudges the needle up to forty-five,
it's just dogs. They like to chase cars. Man's best friend, and all that
How fast can dogs run, anyway?
Forty-five, no problem: by amber light and moonlight he can see their backs flexing with the pace, powerful easy movements, muscles rippling with fierce joy under the thick grey-white coats. At fifty, though, the stride gets laboured and more determined. In the back of the driver's mind an ancient memory stirs; because once upon a time long ago, dogs weren't dogs. They were something quite other.
âPut your foot down,' the driver's mate urges, unnecessarily. âJesus, they're gaining on us.'
Fifty-five, and the dogs' backs are bent like drawn bows as they force the pace. Sixty beats them, and gradually they dwindle, from dogs into dots into specks. The driver begins to slow down.
âShut that bloody siren off,' he mutters.
A steady, law-abiding twenty-nine, as if to demonstrate that nothing really happened back there; no yellow eyes and swaying tongues in the rear-view mirror, no pursuit, or fearâ
âYou get that a lot in the country,' the driver's mate says, his voice rather higher than usual. âDogs chasing cars. Not so much in town, because of getting run over. My cousin Normanâ'
For some reason, however, the narrative urge fails him. He sits quiet for the rest of the ride, and keeps checking the wing mirror. When the white glare of the hospital lights blots out the darkness, he says, âHuskies.'
âDogs that pull sleighs; at the North Pole and stuff. Saw a programme about them once. Fast as shit, and they can run seventy-two hours without stopping.' They pull up, and reach for the door handles. âDidn't know you get them in this country, but there you go. I blame the Internet.'
The driver doesn't answer as he steps down onto the tarmac, his feet not quite steady. Just one of those things, he tells himself; but even so he can't help wondering whether, somewhere on the B2043 between the multiplex and the slip-road for the Ash Grove garden centre, five big yellow-eyed dogs were still grimly, determinedly running.
In every working day there is a still moment, a point of balance; a fulcrum, if you like, around which the scales pivot. The slightest nudge at this point decides whether it's going to be a good day or a bummer. It can come at any stage in the proceedings; it can be a massive boot on your instep in the crowded rush-hour Tube, or a call from a rabid client at 5.29, just as you're pulling your raincoat sleeve up your arm. It can be a fleeting wisp of a smile from the new girl in Accounts, the dismissal of a loathed superior, an unexpected and undeserved pay rise or a bluebottle floating in your mid-morning coffee. But it will come, every day, and leave its little scar.
On the twenty-sixth of January it came at three minutes past nine. It hummed along the phone wire from Reception and shrieked to be picked up, like a fractious baby, before Duncan Hughes had even had a chance to sit down.
Duncan knew it for what it was before the receiver brushed his ear. âHello, Mr Martinez,' he said. âHow can Iâ?'
. But nobody could help Mr Martinez. Not in a jurisdiction that outlaws euthanasia (or, in his case, justifiable pesticide).
âThat's terrible, Mr Martinez,' Duncan said after a while. âI'm really sorry to hearâ'
But not nearly as sorry as he would be. âAnd that's not all,' Mr Martinez went on. âThey came back.'
âThey fucking did. And you know what they did
You couldn't help feeling sorry for him, up to a point (the point, usually, on which the balance of your day teetered, as noted above). Anybody into whom the Revenue has got its needle-pointed teeth to that extent has to be pitied on some level, even if it was seventy-five per cent his own fault. But, as raids followed investigations and hearings before the Special Commissioners were appealed to the Chancery Division, there came a moment when pity ran out, and the hiatus flooded with a vast, horrified weariness; a longing for the wretched man to bugger off and take the pity and the terror with him.
âAnd on top of that,' Mr Martinez said, ânow they're asking for the deposit-account statements right back to 1987.'
What really puzzled Duncan about the Martinez case was the poor fool's ferocious tenacity. Anybody with the brains of a carrot would have given up long since: changed his name, emigrated, his quietus made with a bare bodkin, whatever. Not Ricky Martinez; which meantâ
âI think the best thing,' Duncan sighed, âwould be for you to come in and see me, and we'll talk it through. Today, ifâ'
âI can make five-fifteen.'
Whimper, Duncan thought. âYou couldn't possibly get here a bit earlier?'
âFine. Quarter past five, then, and -' Duncan took a deep breath â- please be sure to bring all the papers with you.'
âAll the papers?'
âAll of them,' Duncan said bitterly.
âYes. See you then.'
âAll right,' said Mr Martinez. âCheers.'
Click-buzz, said the phone. Duncan held it at arm's length and scowled at it for a moment before putting it back. In many ways it reminded him of the former Mrs Hughes: every day he held it close to him, and every day it whispered in his ear horrible things that ruined his life. He reached for his diary and pencilled in the appointment. Then the phone rang again.
, people tended to say when meeting Duncan for the first time,
what do you do, then?
And, when he told them he was a lawyer, and they'd deliberately restrained their lips from curling and asked what sort of lawyer, he'd reply, âOh, death and taxes, mainly'; and then, inevitably, would come one of the Sixteen Jokes - there are only sixteen, and he'd heard them all, so very many times - and after that, the question, âBut don't you find all that stuff pretty depressing?' And he'd answer, âYes.' Then, of course, they'd change the subject. It wasn't that he minded being universally regarded as somewhere between a vulture, a hang-man and the jolly gravedigger in
; that was a fair cop, after all. It was partly the fact that everybody assumed he really wouldn't want to talk about his job; partly the fact that they were rightâ
âMr Woodcock for you,' said Reception. To her credit, she didn't snigger.
- And partly the fact that, every time he met up with someone he hadn't seen for ages, their first question would be, âSo what are you doing
?', as though it was inconceivable that anybody could still be doing his rotten, shitty job, a whole six months laterâ