Table of Contents
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© Tom Holt 1995
Cover illustration by Lauren Panepinto. Cover copyright Â© 2012 by Hachette Book Group, Inc.
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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 James Spartacus Hale and Colin Wilberforce Lincoln Murray, who, on 1 October 1994, abolished slavery in Somerset.
67,811 pints today please, milkman.
Rule one in the licensed victualling trade: Know Your Clientele. Ignore it, and you might as well keep the doors locked.
Mr D. Jones had been in the business for a very long time, and he had long since learned everything there is to know about running a hotel, bar and bistro catering exclusively for drowned sailors.
It is, in fact, fairly straightforward. Good plain food; never under any circumstances allow the bar to run dry; strong tea with lashings of milk and sugar. And, of course, ensure that all tables are secured to the floor with half-inch carriage bolts.
He glanced up through the glass roof. Light never quite made it down as far as The Locker, but the water overhead was turning the precise shade of muggy dark olive that implied daybreak. Time to roll up the shutters, take the towels off the pumps and start a new day.
D. Jones folded the scrap of paper, pushed it into the bottle and rammed home the cork. Then he opened Number Six airlock.
A message in a bottle.
Having decided to kill herself, Jane went into the nearest chemist's shop.
âI'd like a large bottle of aspirins, please,' she said to the man behind the counter. He looked at her. In fact, as far as Jane was concerned, he made an unnecessarily thorough job of it, as if he was planning on doing an autopsy without the tedious business of cutting her up first.
âAspirins?' he asked, making it sound as if she'd asked for the elixir of eternal youth.
âAspirins,' Jane replied. âPlease. And could you hurry it up? I'm on my lunch break.'
The man, who was white-haired and very tall, sniffed. âAny particular sort?' he asked. âOr just aspirins?'
The man smiled. âNot sure we've got any of those in stock, just aspirins. I'll have to look out the back. Don't go away.'
Before Jane could say anything, the man had darted away into the stockroom. She felt a strong inclination to make her escape while he was gone, but the voice of logic inside her head dissuaded her.
Come off it, girl
, it said,
you've made up your mind to commit suicide and you're afraid something bad might happen to you? In a chemist's?
The man reappeared.
âYou're in luck,' he said, extending a hand containing a big brown bottle. âJust the one left. Directions on the label, that'll be two pounds seventy.'
It was, Jane couldn't help observing, a very old bottle. It had cobwebs on it. She'd read somewhere that out-of-date medicines could be very bad for you.
âThanks,' she said. âJust what I wanted. Keep the change.'
Now then; where? Did it matter? Anywhere she could be sure of a little bit of peace and quiet. Her flat. No, not her flat; they wouldn't find her for days (who would they be, she wondered) and by then she probably wouldn't be very nice . . . A hotel? She looked in her purse, which contained three pounds and seventeen pence, and no cheque book or credit card. She'd left them at home, on the basis that you can't take it with you. This, she muttered to herself, is getting tiresome.
A railway station. Yes. She was, after all, about to embark on a very long journey.
There was a station; and the station had one of those waiting rooms that make you decide to wait on the platform instead. Guaranteed privacy. She sat down, opened her bag and took out the bottle.
Note. Should she write a note? It was traditional, yes, but when you looked at it objectively, what the hell was the point? She had no family or other human associates to whom she owed an explanation; what made her think that the coroner was going to be interested in her tawdry little problems? They have a hard life, coroners; long hours, calls out in the middle of the night, constant association with lawyers, policemen and dead bodies. Boredom would probably be the last straw; and besides, she didn't have a pen with her, and a suicide note written in eyebrow pencil smacked of undue frivolity.
Goodbye, cruel world. She unscrewed the bottle . . .
âThank goodness for that,' said the genie. âFor a moment there I was beginning to get worried.'
He hung in the air like a cloud of gunsmoke on a still, bright day; and as each second passed he became more substantial and more brain-wrenchingly incredible. There
was a tinkle as the bottle hit the concrete floor and disintegrated into small, sharp brown fragments.
âYou'd think,' he went on, âI'd have had more sense, particularly in my line of business. First thing they teach you in genie school, if a strange man comes up to you, offers you sweets and asks you to get into his bottle, walk away, or better still, rip his head off and swallow it.' He sighed, and the effort made his component molecules sway in the air. âFourteen years this Tuesday fortnight I've been in that sodding bottle, and the sanitary arrangements left something to be desired, I'm telling you.'
He was no longer transparent; scarcely translucent. A shaft of light nudging its way through the dusty window hit the back of his head and, knowing what was good for it, refracted violently.
Genies are designed to be useful rather than ornamental, and this one was a masterpiece of the genre. There was enough ivory in its tusks to make cue balls for all the snooker tables in Europe.
âWho are you?' Jane said.
The genie frowned. âAre you serious?' it demanded. âOr just extremely sceptical?'
âHole in one.'
âA real genie?'
The genie clicked its tongue. âNo,' it replied. âI'm a fake, you can tell by the lack of hallmarks. Of course I'm a real genie. What do you want, a certificate of authenticity?'
âWhat . . . ?' Jane felt her vocabulary clot. On the one hand, she had made up her mind to put an end to her pointless life, the existence of genies wasn't really germane to the various issues that had influenced her in making that decision, and time was getting on. If she didn't get a
move on, she'd arrive in Heaven too late for dinner. On the other hand . . .
âAdmit it,' she said, âyou're my imagination, aren't you? I've taken the pills and I'm hallucinating.'
âThank you very much,' replied the genie, offended. âDo I look like a hallucination?'
Jane considered. âFrankly,' she said, âyes.'
The genie considered this. âFair enough,' it replied. âMaybe that wasn't the most intelligent rhetorical question I've ever posed. Do I take it, by the way, that you were planning on eating the pills?'
âHeadache? Sore throat?'
âBad dose of life,' Jane replied. âFortunately, the remedy is available over the counter without a prescription.'
The genie shook its head. âBad attitude you've got there, if I may make so bold,' it said. âThere's lots of things worse than life, believe you me.'
âOh yes? Such as?'
âSuch as death, for one,' the genie replied, âspending a lot of time in bottles coming in close behind to clinch silver. Mind if I sit down, by the way? Cramp.' Like a closely packed swarm of bees it drifted down and hovered an inch or so above the bench opposite Jane. âMug's game, death is. All that standing about in queues and filling in forms. Compared to death, life is just a bowl of cherries.'
âAh,' Jane replied, with a strong trace of ice in her voice, âI wasn't planning on dying, I was planning on being reincarnated. So put that in your pipe and smoke it, Mister Clever.'
The genie nodded. âDon't get me wrong,' it said, âthere's nothing bad about reincarnation
, it's basically a very good system, cost-effective and ecologically friendly. It's just that, until they iron out the technical glitches . . .'
Jane frowned. âI don't think you're a genie at all,' she said. âI think you're actually the imaginary friend I had when I was five, only grown-up. You're just as irritating as he was, and you've got the same knack of poking your finger in your ear and wiggling it about when you're talking. '
âDo I do that?' The genie looked at its hand. âReally?'
âHave you seen the length of my claws? How come I don't lacerate my eardrums?'
Jane shrugged. âThat's your problem, surely. Look if you really are a genie and you've been sent to make me change my mind -'
âSent? Who by?'
âSearch me. Is there anybody who sends genies, or do they just turn up? No, forget it, no offence but I'm really not interested. It's been lovely meeting you, really it has, but it's time I wasn't here. â
âPositive.' Jane looked at the floor. âI take it,' she said, âthe bottle was empty. Apart from you, of course.'