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© 2009 by The One Reluctant Lemming Co. Ltd.
Cover illustration by Darren Nash & Simon Sheffield. 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
To my father; who carried the bag with humour.
And to all salesmen everywhere.
e was losing her, he could tell. The polite smile was still there, but the eyes were glazing over, the mind was drifting away. Right, he thought.
âOr there's the new BB27Ks,' he said, increasing the volume just a trifle. âI think they'd do really well for you. Ever since we brought them out, it's been phenomenal.'
He'd got her back, just for a moment. âI read about them,' she said; just enough enthusiasm to dirty a microscope slide, but that was something like a ninety per cent improvement. âHow are they going?'
âBrilliant,' he said, âabsolutely brilliant. Doing very nicely. Everywhere I go, people keep telling me they're just flying off the shelves.'
Immediately, he knew he'd said the wrong thing; her mouth tightened, her eyes narrowed a little. No idea why. âIn fact, we're doing a special . . .' he started to say, but a flicker of movement behind her head snagged his attention and he dried up. On the top row of the shelf unit facing him, a cardboard box had just sprouted wings.
Sod it, he thought. The NM66.
âUm,' he said, as the box stretched, preened its light grey feathers and made a soft cheeping noise. The shopkeeper looked round, swore and grabbed at it, but it was too late. The box spread its wings, hopped off the shelf and glided lazily, just out of reach of the shopkeeper's flailing hands, over their heads, out through the open door into the street.
She looked at him.
âWe're working on that,' he said sheepishly. âBit of a snarl-up with quality control, but they promise me the next batch . . .'
âFifteen of them,' she said bitterly. âIn just one week.'
âIt's the mating season,' he mumbled. âBut they've completely redesigned the DNA sequence, and that'll sort it, no problem. Meanwhile, if you'll just do us a returns note for the, um, escaped stock, we'll get that straightened out for you, and . . .'
He ran out of words. The expression on her face was quite clear: forget it, don't bother, save your breath. But that wasn't his way. He sucked in a little air, and said brightly, âSo, shall I put you down for three dozen of the BB27K, for starters? We're offering special display materials, dumpbins, special promotional . . .'
âNo, thanks,' she said.
Oh, he thought. Right, fine. âWell, I guess that's about it for today, then. Thanks ever so much for seeing me, and I'll be back again first week in June. Meanwhile, if there's anything I can help you with . . .'
It was like pouring water into sand. He was used to it, but that didn't make it fun. And it'd be nice, just once, if he got a chance to end a sentence with something other than three dots. He smiled, closed the lid of his briefcase, thanked her once again for her time and left the shop.
It was raining outside, needless to say, as though tears for the miserable fate of all salesmen everywhere were rolling down heaven's face. One of these days, he thought, I'll get a proper job, in an office, and I won't have to do this any more. One of these days.
He looked up, and saw the stray NM66 perched on top of a nearby traffic light. Stupid bloody things, he thought as the box, now distinctly damp, cooed mildly at him; not enough sense to stay out of the rain, it'll get all soggy and fall to bits if it's not careful.
He walked back to his car, which winked its indicators at him as he thumbed the plastic key thing. At least someone's pleased to see me, he thought.
Before he drove off, he filled in the order form. That didn't take long. No BB27Ks, no GP19s, he'd been stone-cold certain he'd be able to shift a couple of outers of YJ42s but no dice. Just a couple of trays of AA1s and the inevitable repeat order for DW6 . . .
That made him frown, as it always did. DW6: one of the firm's biggest sellers, but in seven years he'd yet to meet anybody who knew what the stupid stuff was actually
. It was, by any criteria, the weirdest, most totally improbable concept he'd come across (and in this business, that was saying a lot). None of the reps knew what it was supposed to do, the buyers hadn't got a clue, the shop managers and sales assistants didn't know; but
the customers bought it
, by the bucketful, by the skipload, soâ
Never mind, he told himself firmly as he switched on the SatNav and waited for it to warm up. A mystery it might be, but at least he could shift it; three hearty cheers for small mercies. There were some months (and this might well prove to be one of them, the way things were going) when the only thing that stood between him and an excitingly challenging change in career direction was DW6.
SatNav flickered into brightly backlit life, and he touched the nail of his index finger to the screen. The colours swirled, and it saidâ
- SatNav said, âYour route is being calculated; please wait,' and for a moment he forgot about snotty shop managers and flying cardboard boxes and his monthly target and perversely inexplicable megaselling DW6, because there was something about its voice, her voice, that was so wonderfully soothing and reassuring; like she understood him, like she caredâ
He frowned. They'd warned him about that, of course. He glanced at the little screen, as the picture swung wildly through the
axis and settled itself. Straight on out of town until he hit the main A666, then take the second exit. Fine.
Not much traffic at this time of day. He'd warned them about the NM66, of course, told them till he was blue in the face and would they listen? Fat chance. He'd told them that it was just a matter of time before an escaped pair started breeding, and then the brown stuff 'd hit the swiftly whirring blades all right: tabloid headlines, billion-dollar lawsuits, the boingboing noise of rolling heads in the deep-pile-carpeted corridors of corporate power. He sighed. They lived in a world of their own in Kettering.
He turned the radio on, but it was some phone-in, so he fished about in the glove compartment for a CD. Now there (he thought, as he scrabbled one-handed through the plastic cases) was another bloody mystery, because a third of the stuff in there was garbage he'd never have bought in a million years, a third he couldn't even recognise, and of the remaining third that he was prepared to acknowledge as his own, the one thing he actually wanted to find was always missing. White Stripes; no, not today. Very Best of James Blunt - contradiction in terms. He looked up just in time to avoid smashing into the back of a lorry, and grabbed something at random.
It turned out to be a home-made job, no label or writing on it, so presumably one of Karen's compilation CDs - no idea how they came to end up in his glove compartment; another mystery. He stuck it in anyway, and it turned out not to be too bad after all, though of course he had to keep the volume right down so he could hear SatNavâ
âAfter three hundred yards,' SatNav said, âturn left.'
He realised he was smiling, and frowned instead. So what, she had,
had a nice voice: bright, warm, friendly, ever so slightly sexy butâAll right, so
? Obviously they'd chosen a voice that was carefully designed to appeal to the tired, stressed-out male driver, and they were good at their jobs, and they'd succeeded. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that, nothing odd or sinister or strange about it, and if he'd rather listen to her - it - than to the Proclaimers or the miserable sods on the radio, that was perfectly all right, nothing whatsoever to worry about. Even so, he turned the CD player up just a little bit, and self-consciously tapped out the beat on the steering wheel with his fingers.
I worry too much, he thought; and when there's too much or too little to worry about, I worry about worrying. Maybe I should be worried about that, too. Or maybe I should just get a bloody grip, and concentrate on getting through the next call without screwing up too monumentally badly.
âAt the next junction,' SatNav said, âturn left.'
âWhat? Oh, yes,' he muttered, and dabbed at the indicator stalk. âThanks.'
Now then, he thought. Next call was Stetchkin & Sons: old-established family firm, conservative, the archetypal no-call-for-that-round-here outfit, which meant he was going to have to come up with something pretty stunningly amazing if he was going to offload any BB27Ks on them. He rehearsed the standard pitch in his mind. No chance. Come on, he told himself reproachfully, you're a salesman, you can do thisâ
âI can,' he said aloud, like they'd told him to on his Innovation & Assertiveness Awareness Day (complete waste of time, except for the spring rolls at lunchtime). âI can. There's no such word as can't.'
It sounded even sillier than usual, and he grinned. Yes, he thought, but just for the hell of it, like it's some kind of bet I'm having with myself; if only to see the look on old Mr Stetchkin's face when he realises he's just placed an order for three dozen of something he didn't know he wanted. I