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Authors: Tom Holt

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Open Sesame

BOOK: Open Sesame
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OPEN SESAME by TOM HOLT

CHAPTER ONE

Now then, where to begin?

The end would be the most logical place.

As soon as the boiling water hit him, Akram the Terrible knew what was happening. He tried to draw in enough air to scream; but inside an industry standard medium-sized palm-oil jar, air is somewhat at a premium, and besides, what was the point? By the time he got as far as eeeeee, he knew perfectly well, he’d be dead. Accordingly, being of a sanguine and stoical disposition, he settled himself as comfortably as he could to wait for the beginning of the last great adventure.

AND NOW—

(All this, of course, took place in a fraction of a second so infinitesimally small that all the timepieces in Switzerland couldn’t measure it. But it was all the time Akram had left, and he’d always been a frugal man, taking pride in getting full value out of everything.)

AKRAM THE TERRIBLE— Either it was his imagination, or there was someone inside the jar with him. Since the jar was still filling up with boiling water and there wasn’t enough space for a decent half-lungful of air, it stood to reason that the smiling, lounge-suited character hovering in front of his eyes holding a microphone and a big red book was probably an hallucination. Or perhaps an angel, or some other form of in-flight entertainment. Be that as it may; whoever the man with the book was, he came closer, still smiling.

BANDIT, MURDERER, THIEF, ARCH-CRIMINAL, VOTED FIFTEEN YEARS IN SUCCESSION BAGHDAD’S PUBLIC ENEMY NUMBER ONE—

Yes, thought Akram impatiently, I know all that. Get on with it, or I’ll be dead and never know what the hell it is you want to tell me. Which presumably is important, or you wouldn’t be going to all this trouble.

THIS WAS YOUR LIFE!

- Flashing in front of his eyes, just on the point of death. Well of course, he’d heard about it happening - how the blazes anybody knew was quite another matter, but apparently they’d been perfectly correct. Now Akram had his faults, quite a few of them, enough to fill three rooms in the records department down at Watch Headquarters; but false modesty had never been one of them. If this was a review of his life, it’d be well worth seeing. He settled back to enjoy himself.

Born the fatherless son of a whore in the filthiest slums of Baghdad, you embark on your life of blood and crime when, at age four and a half, you batter a blind old beggar to death for the sake of a few worthless copper coins. Now that was forty-one years ago, but the beggar, the first man you ever killed, has never forgotten you, and we’ve managed to track him down so he can be with you tonight. All the way from the Nethermost Pit of Hell, your first ever victim - Old Blind Rashid!

In the middle air, an unseen audience clapped and cheered as a wizened, crooked figure wobbled unsteadily through the side of the jar.

‘Bless my soul!’ Akram exclaimed, delighted. ‘It is you, isn’t it? Well I never!’

The old cripple hobbled up and stood beside the man with the book, who was asking him what it felt like to be murdered by a boy who’d one day go on to be the most hated and feared assassin in all Persia. And Old Blind Rashid was saying, Well, Michael, even then, you know, he showed a lot of promise, we knew he was destined for great things, and I’d just like to say how pleased and proud I am that he chose me, an old penniless beggar, to be his very first victim. Akram grinned. He was enjoying this.

It really was nice, though, to see them again after all this time: Sadiq, who’d led the first ever gang he belonged to, who he killed when he was only thirteen; Hakim, the old fence from the bazaar who’d done so much to help him in the early days until Akram had shopped him to the Wazir for the reward money: Crazy Ali, who he’d supplanted as leader of the dreaded Forty Thieves gang; Asaf, who’d taught him the secret of the magic cave, moments before his untimely death - when he’d shouted ‘Open sesame!’ from behind the curtain, it nearly brought tears to Akram’s eyes. And of course Yasmin, the sloe-eyed houri who’d told him where the accursed Ali Baba had run off to with all the loot, and worked out the cunning plan whereby they were smuggled into Baba’s fortified mansion in empty palm-oil jars —

But of course, went on the man with the book, this time the joke was on you, because of course Yasmin double-crossed you, and in about one micro-nanosecond, Akram the Terrible, that will have been your life!

Lights. Fanfare. Everyone comes forward, crowding round him and grinning self-consciously as the man hands him the book—

‘Hang on,’ said Akram.

The man looked at him strangely. I’m very sorry, he said, but that’s your lot. And, as we say in the business, you can’t have your chips and eat them. Akram the —

‘No,’ Akram interrupted, pushing the book aside. ‘Something’s wrong here.’

The man looked worried. I don’t think so.

Akram shook his head; difficult, given the space problem referred to above, but somehow he managed it. ‘I’ve got it,’ he said. ‘Two-Faced Zulfiqar; you know, the psychotic serial murderer who taught me all I know about advanced throttling techniques? He should be here.’

He should?

Akram nodded. ‘Too right. At least, he was here the last time.’

Akram stopped, and listened to what he’d just said.

‘The last time,’ he repeated.

Suddenly the vision faded - theatre, guests, curtains, spotlight, enormous back-projected picture of himself splashed all over one wall - leaving only the man and the red book. He looked ill.

Don’t be silly, he said. You only die once, how can there have been a last time? Now, I don’t want to rush you, but—

It wasn’t just the twelve gallons of boiling water cascading down onto his upturned face that was making Akram sweat. In fact, he’d forgotten all about that. He’d forgotten, because he’d remembered something else.

‘I’ve done all this before,’ he said.

Fuck.

‘Dying,’ Akram went on. ‘Hundreds of times. Thousands, even. Dear God, I can remember them all. Every single one.’

Oh shit.

‘Here,’ yelled Akram, a billionth of a billionth of a second before the agonising shock stopped his heart and he died, ‘what the hell’s going on around here?’

‘Now then,’ said the dentist. ‘This won’t hurt a bit.’

Liar, Michelle thought. Men were deceivers ever. But, since she was lying flat on her back with a light blazing into her eyes and half her face feeling as if it had been blown up with a bicycle pump, there wasn’t a great deal she could do about it. The drill whined and began to rattle her bones.

‘Nearly done,’ said the dentist, smiling. ‘Have a rinse away.’

Oh good, said Michelle to herself, time for the yummy pink water. If I ask him nicely, maybe he’ll give me the recipe. She glugged and spat.

‘Just a bit more,’ the dentist continued, easing her gently backwards. ‘You’re being terribly brave.’ No I’m not, you fraud, and you know it as well as I do. But he had rather a nice smile. The drill screamed.

‘There we are,’ the dentist said. ‘All done and dusted. Now you just lie back and think beautiful thoughts while I shove off and mix the gamshack. Won’t be two ticks.’

Dentists and hairdressers, Michelle thought bitterly, ought to have their tongues cut out. It’d only be fair, since they’re licensed to make their living cutting bits off you. I bet you don’t get surgeons yammering away ten to the dozen; it’s ‘Scalpel’ and ‘Forceps’ and, if you’re unlucky, ‘Oh balls, there’s a bit left over, open her up again.’ They don’t lean over you while you’re all open and ask you what you think of the latest Carla Lane sitcom.

‘Right,’ said the dentist, returning. ‘Open wide, like you’re trying to swallow a bus, while I pop in the little sucky gadget. There we go. Hey, man, fill that thing!’

Which he proceeded to do, very neatly and quickly. He had a long face, pointed nose and chin, and bright, sad eyes. He was lost somewhere between thirty and fifty, and he never seemed to blink.

‘Caramba!’ he exclaimed. ‘That ought to do it, more or less. People tell me I ought to sign my work in case of forgery, but I’m far too self-effacing. Up you come.’

Michelle felt the back of the chair pressing against her shoulders, and the ceiling became the wall. ‘Thag you bery muj,’ she mumbled.

‘You may get a little discomfort for an hour or so after the jab wears off,’ the dentist was saying. ‘That’s just the nerves having tantrums and telling you how cruel I’ve been. If it goes on any longer than that, just yell and we’ll give them a talking to. Okay?’

Michelle nodded, half smiled and made for the door. As she opened it, the dentist was busy with his instruments, dunking them in the steriliser or whatever dentists do. She made a goodbye noise and retreated.

One dismal job after another; what a lovely way to spend her day off. It was just on eleven, and at a quarter past one she was due at the nursing home, to pick up Aunt Fatty’s things. By then, she hoped, she’d have got over the anaesthetic, because it was going to be hard enough fending off the condolences of the odious matron without the further aggro of doing it with half a face. Not that that would be a problem, necessarily. When it came to faces, Miss Foreshaft had enough for both of them.

‘Such a sweet lady,’ cooed Miss Foreshaft, ‘she will be missed.’

‘Yes,’ Michelle replied. It was a bleak room. You could have used it for delicate laboratory experiments without the slightest fear of the sample getting contaminated. It was all as sterile as a gauze dressing.

‘We were all,’ went on Miss Foreshaft, ‘so fond of her and her cute little ways. Such a good soul, in spite of everything.’

Miss Foreshaft, Michelle thought, wouldn’t it be fun if you were to end up in a place like this? No, not really. I wouldn’t wish this on anybody. ‘I’d better,’ Michelle started to say. ‘I mean, um, I suppose I ought to, um, sign something.’

‘Here.’ Miss Foreshaft’s talon pointed out the place in the form. ‘And here. And here. Yes, read it first by all means. I’ll just get the bits and bobs for you.’

The bits and bobs proved to be one small Sainsbury’s bag, two night-dresses, a pair of vintage pink slippers (furry lining much moulted), a nineteen-sixties plastic powder compact, two or three postcards (all from Michelle) and a small ring-box. Oh God, thought Michelle. Aunt Fatty’s ring.

‘And of course,’ went on Miss Foreshaft, arch as a viaduct, ‘our final account, no hurry of course, though prompt settlement would oblige. A cheque? Of course.’

Aunt Fatty - Fatima Charlotte Burrard - had been mad. Once you’d got used to the fact, it never really mattered terribly much. It wasn’t a distressing, harrowing kind of madness; it was almost cosy, in a strange way. Batty, potty, a bit doolally-tap. Apart from that, she was rather a sweet old lady.

‘Thank you, dear,’ said Miss Foreshaft, her claws discreetly clamped on the cheque. ‘If you’ll just bear with me two minutes, I’ll get you your receipt.’

For Aunt Fatty had talked to things. For the last twenty-five years of her life, ever since Michelle was a little girl, she had talked to inanimate objects - cookers, hoovers, typewriters, cameras, locks, televisions, blenders; anything mechanical or electrical - instead of people. As far as she was concerned, people weren’t there, she couldn’t see or hear them. But the electric kettle and the spin-drier could, apparently; and so you communicated with Aunt Fatty by means of a series of third-party tell-your-friend conversations involving one or more household appliances - a bit like a séance, only not in the least spooky. Once you got the hang of it, you really did stop noticing, like being fluent in a foreign language, and what Aunt Fatty actually said after all that was generally perfectly lucid, though seldom particularly interesting. Before she was married she’d worked in a draper’s shop. After she was married, she’d ironed a lot, washed things, cooked. In 1943, a flying bomb had gone off at the bottom of Kettering Avenue just as she was crossing the top end, and the bang had startled her rather. She won ten pounds on the Premium Bonds in 1974. Apart from that, a feature-length film version of her life would have to fill in rather a lot of screen time with atmospheric close-ups and long, sweeping pans over the rooftops of Halesowen.

‘Goodbye, dear,’ Miss Foreshaft yattered. ‘Do drop in any time you happen to be passing.’

Michelle smiled - it was her see-you-in-Hell-first smile, but she hadn’t quite regained the full use of her jaw muscles - got in her car and drove away. Well, she reflected, that’s what life does to you. Pity, really.

On the way, she stopped the car opposite a litter-bin. She hoped she wasn’t a hard, callous person; but two Marks & Sparks nighties and a pair of slippers that had predeceased their owner by some years weren’t exactly the sort of thing you can cherish. If you’d bust your way into a tomb in the Valley of the Kings and all you’d turned up was this lot, you’d probably pack in archaeology for good. She’d keep the postcards, but the powder-compact would have to go too. It was one of the most depressing objects she’d ever set eyes on.

Which left the ring-box. She opened it, and stood for a while, contemplating a plain silver ring, rather worn, with a bit of blue glass stuck in it. Aunt Fatty’s ring. Gosh.

BOOK: Open Sesame
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