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Authors: Tom Holt

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BOOK: Open Sesame
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The third message was:

‘Hello? Shit, where the hell can he have got to this time of night? Yes, it’s me. Look, it’s not Safeways, I looked it up and actually it’s ASDA. Okay, it’s the big supermarket on the corner of Cinnamon Street and Landau Way. Turn right at John Lewis and you can’t miss it. Or else. Goodbye.’

Having played back the tape a couple of times and tried Michelle’s number (answering machine) Ali Baba collected the sword and the gun, drove to his surgery and went to the store cupboard. Inside he found two hundred pairs of disposable rubber gloves, three large boxes of disposable forceps, five thousand doses of local anaesthetic, twenty tubs of impression material, a catering-size drum of instant coffee granules, an empty floor safe and an old-fashioned silver sixpence. He slumped, as if his backbone had just been repossessed by the finance company.

Wait a minute. The sixpence …

It goes without saying that all dentists’ surgeries, sooner or later, get infested with tooth fairies. Dentists who find silver sixpences scattered about their premises therefore know the score and although the old-style djinn traps are now illegal (the details are a bit too grisly for print; suffice it to say that a fairy triggering one while foraging for teeth wouldn’t have very long to reflect on the wisdom of being careful what you wish for) but pixie dust, Larsen traps and large, bad-tempered cats generally solve the problem sooner or later. Dentists, in short, know about tooth fairies, in the same way that farmers have a certain familiarity with the habits of rabbits, rooks and pigeons. They know, for instance, that in spite of the name, they don’t just help themselves to teeth, in the same way that cat burglars will also take the occasional dog or pedigree hamster. A sixpence in the tea kitty or the bottom of the petty cash tin speaks for itself. On the other hand, very few tooth fairies go out tooled up with the hardware necessary to prise open safes. Let alone magical safes.

The logical conclusion therefore was that Akram had teamed up with a tooth fairy. Having run it past his mental panel of scrutineers, Ali Baba filed the fact in the back of his mind, and sat down in his own chair, wondering what to do next. The next thing he knew was the phone ringing; he looked up at the clock on the wall and saw that it was 7.45 am, start of a brand new working day.

It’d be wrong to call Ali Baba callous or uncaring; on the contrary, he had twenty-odd people coming to see him to be cured of excruciating pain, and he cared about each and everyone of them. He also cared about his daughter, very deeply indeed; but her appointment, so to speak, wasn’t for another eighteen hours. He hoped she’d be all right, washed up, shaved as best he could with a disposable scalpel and his tiny mirror-on-a-stick, and buzzed for the first patient.

‘First,’ Akram said, lighting the paraffin lamp, ‘I don’t want you to be frightened.’

Michelle glowered at him. ‘Really?’ she said. ‘Then I’d suggest you cancel the rest of the lessons and ask for your money back, because when it comes to not frightening people, you haven’t got a clue.’

The corner of Akram’s mouth twitched a little. ‘You don’t seem very frightened,’ he said. ‘Quite the opposite.’

‘I’m absolutely bloody livid, if that’s what you mean,’ Michelle growled, tugging vainly at the ropes round her wrists. ‘Doesn’t mean I’m not frightened. You’re the man in the burger joint, aren’t you?’

Akram nodded. ‘That’s what I do for a living,’ he said, with more than a hint of pride. ‘They’ve recently made me the assistant manager.’

‘I see,’ Michelle replied. ‘So creeping up on people and abducting them at knifepoint’s just a hobby, is it? Other people seem to manage with bird-watching or flower-arranging.’

Akram looked hurt. ‘Don’t be like that,’ he said. ‘I tried to be as nice about it as I could.’

‘Sure. Could you possibly spare me a moment or I’ll slit your throat. I should have guessed then you weren’t a real kidnapper.’

As she said the words, Michelle couldn’t help feeling that situated as she was, bound hand and foot in a lock-up workshop somewhere with a knife-wielding six-foot-five stranger, her tone might usefully be a little bit less abrasive. There was something about the man, though, that entirely failed to terrify her. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe he would cut her throat, if whatever his strange motivation was demanded it. It was just that he’d probably try and be as considerate and unthreatening about it as he could manage, and even at the moment of severing her jugular vein he’d be at pains to make it clear that he still respected her as a person. She knew all about the New Man; well, this was the New Villain. It intrigued her.

‘You know perfectly well who I am,’ Akram replied quietly. ‘And I reckon you know why I’m doing this. I’m trying to keep everything nice and civilised, but really, you aren’t making it any easier.’

‘So sorry,’ Michelle snapped. ‘So what do you want to do, mix up some mulled wine and play Trivial Pursuit?’

‘Play what?’

‘Trivial Pursuit. It’s a sort of game where you ask silly questions and move counters on a board.’

‘Really?’ Akram raised an eyebrow. ‘Since my time, that. I’ve got chess and backgammon, if you’re interested.’

‘Get real, will you? I wouldn’t play chess with you if you were the last man alive.’

‘Quite,’ Akram replied. ‘If I was the last man alive, I’m sure we’d be far too busy foraging for food and hiding from packs of killer dogs and things. All right, then, what about canasta? Or mah jong?’

Michelle stared at him keenly. ‘Are you trying to tell me,’ she said, ‘that you actually have a mah jong set in a hideout}”

‘Why not?’ Akram replied with a shrug. ‘Look, I was kidnapping people when you were still … Sorry, different timescale, but anyhow, you get the point. And the first thing you learn about the kidnapping business is, it can get very, very boring. So naturally I laid in a few games. I mean, I Spy’s all right, but…’

‘Bet you haven’t got Diplomacy’

Akram shook his head. ‘Not really suitable,’ he said. ‘I mean, the average kidnap ordeal lasts about one to three weeks, which means the game’d just be getting interesting when it was time to go home. Actually, I remember the time I snatched the Grand Vizier’s nephew and we started playing Racing Genie. Ten days that game lasted. The Grand Vizier paid up on day four, but we couldn’t persuade the little brute to go home until he’d won. And you try deliberately losing Racing Genie without being embarrassingly obvious about it …’

‘Racing Genie?’

Akram shook his head vigorously. ‘No way,’ he said. ‘It’s totally addictive, Racing Genie. You just get completely carried away.’

‘Sounds interesting.’

‘We haven’t got time. I’m due to hand you over at half-one tomorrow morning.’

‘Oh go on. At least show me the rules.’

‘Well’

‘Please?’

Akram hesitated. As he did so it occurred to him to turn the lamp up a bit, but he decided against it. The dimmer the light, the fainter his shadow, and he felt more comfortable that way. ‘Oh all right,’ he said. ‘But only for half an hour.’

‘… And sixteen for a Wish, that makes ninety-four, doubled because you’re on a Magic Carpet square in clubs repiqued, add two for his fez makes a hundred and ninety, which means I get four lamp points and you get another wish.’

‘Yah!’

‘Beginner’s luck. Right, your go - Oh my God, will you look at the time?’ They looked up. The battered alarm clock sitting on an upended packing case read 12:57. ‘Marvellous!’ Akram sighed. ‘We’re going to be late for the bloody handover. Come on, get your coat.’

Michelle shook her head. ‘We’ve got plenty of time,’ she said. ‘This time of night there’ll be no traffic about, so if we cut down through Marchmain Street and under the underpass we can be there in fifteen minutes.’

‘You reckon?’

‘Easily,’ Michelle replied, shaking the dice. ‘Right, let’s see. Hey, double four, that means I can have another mosque on Trebizond. Now then …’

Ali Baba waited until quarter to three; then it started to rain and he decided to go home. It wasn’t that he was callous or uncaring; but he hadn’t got much sleep the night before, either, and he had a very difficult root-fill job to do on Mrs Willoughby’s lower back left molar in the morning. Having checked for the fifteenth time that he was in the right car park, he got in and drove home.

At half-past ten the phone rang. ‘Sorry about that,’ said Akram. ‘We, er, lost track of time, and…’

‘We!’

‘We were playing Racing Genie,’ Akram explained. ‘In fact we still are, and - hey! I saw that, put it back - look, would it put you out dreadfuly if we postponed the handover till, say, Wednesday? Only I’ve got three back doubles in a row here, so if I can just get the full set of Utilities …’

‘I quite understand,’ replied Ali Baba icily. ‘I mean, I’d hate to interrupt your game just to ransom my only daughter.’

‘I - would you like a word with her? She’s just here. It’s your father.’

‘Hello?’

‘Michelle?’ Ali Baba demanded. ‘Is that you? Look, are you all right, because …’

‘Fine, fine,’ Michelle’s voice replied. ‘Listen, do you know this game? I mean, did they play it back in the Old Country, or whatever you call it, because I’ve got major triples in all three Houses but no gryphon, and I was wondering if you could suggest…’

‘You repique, naturally,’ Ali Baba replied, ‘which means Green has to go dummy and you can finesse on the last three tricks, leaving you just needing a double four for Home.’ He paused, mentally playing back what he’d just said. ‘So you’re all right, then?’

‘I am now,’ Michelle replied. ‘I was thinking about leading a blind shimmy to make four, but that’s far better. It’s a good game, this, isn’t it?’

‘I like it,’ Ali Baba replied. ‘Used to play quite a lot when I was your … well, once upon a time. In fact,’ he couldn’t resist adding, ‘one year I made it to the finals of the Baghdad Open.’

‘Really? Gosh!’ Michelle said; and just for a moment, she sounded quite like a real daughter. ‘And did you win?’

‘Of course,’ Ali Baba lied. ‘All right, then, see you Wednesday.’

“Bye, then.’

“Bye.’

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Midnight.

Actually, midnight isn’t a particularly good time of day to go burgling. There are too many people still awake; three in the morning is far better, if slightly less dramatic. Of course, perhaps the best time of all to burgle a bank, office or other commercial premises is half past four on a Friday afternoon. Wander in with a clipboard and a trolley, ask the most junior-looking member of staff to sign in three places, and you can probably get help loading the stuff into the van.

Midnight is, however, more traditional, and tradition, as noted above, is ingrained into the genetic matrix of the Smith family. Somewhere at home, at the bottom of a wardrobe, John Fingers II still had a striped jersey, a black mask and a sack with SWAG embroidered on it in sampler-stitch.

It was tradition, in fact, that gave him pause for thought as he stood under the staff room window of the National Lombard Bank in Cinnamon Street, his right hand tightly clenched into a fist. He was about to try out a radically new and different technique, and the very novelty of it all was making his scalp itch. After all, screamed his genes, shinning up a drainpipe and busting a window was good enough for your father and his father before him, so it ought to be good enough for you. True, getting caught red-handed and spending most of their lives in the nick was good enough for them, too; but isn’t that all part of the great rich tapestry of this thieving life?

No, muttered John Fingers II to himself, and added something about buggering it for a game of soldiers that would have made his great-great-grandfather turn in his grave, had he not died at a time when the bodies of criminals were used for medical research. (For the record, at that precise moment, on a back shelf in a dusty old cupboard somewhere in the University of Durham, a very old bottle of formaldehyde went plop!) If they’d had that attitude back in the Stone Age the wheel would never have been invented, and young Darren Fingers Smith would now be out trying to hotwire a motorised sled.

Here goes.

Directly above his head was a square box marked NEVASLEEP ALARM COMPANY. John Fingers II took a deep breath, slipped the ring on his finger and cleared his throat.

‘Excuse me,’ he whispered.

‘Huh? Whoozat?’

‘Excuse me,’ said John Fingers, ‘but would you mind switching yourself off?’

‘You what?’ grunted the alarm, sleepily.

‘Switch yourself off,’ John Fingers repeated. ‘You see, I want to climb in through that window, and I don’t want to set you off.’

‘Get real,’ replied the alarm. ‘You think I was manufactured yesterday, or something? Bugger off before I ring the cops.’ John Fingers shook his head. ‘I’m trying to be reasonable here,’ he hissed back. ‘Like, if you won’t switch yourself off, it means I’ve got to climb up there and snip all your wires, which’ll piss me off and hurt you, probably. And while I’m at it,’ he added maliciously. ‘I might just prise your box off and gum your works up good and proper. It’ll take ‘em weeks to get you straight again, and in the meantime you’ll be going off every time somebody blows their nose in Winchester. It must be really embarrassing when that happens; you know, everybody stumping round in pyjamas at two in the morning trying to find the main cable, and of course it’ll be you gets all the blame for their mistakes. They might even rip you out and get a new one.’

‘Now steady on,’ replied the alarm. ‘There’s no need to get nasty.’

‘Whereas,’ John Fingers continued smoothly, ‘if you just switch yourself off now, I can leave you in peace and quiet and they’ll blame some poor little clerk for forgetting to set you before locking up. You can see my point, can’t you?’

The alarm considered for a moment. ‘You won’t say a word?’

‘Cross my heart.’

‘It’s really unethical, you know. I could get disconnected for just talking to you.’

‘You already did that,’ John Fingers pointed out, ‘so it’s sheep and lamb time, anyhow. Tell you what, I’ll just snip this wire here and then you’ll know for certain how much it hurts, and then maybe …’

BOOK: Open Sesame
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