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Authors: Tom Holt

Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Fantasy fiction, #Humorous stories

Open Sesame (26 page)

BOOK: Open Sesame
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It was insult spot-welded to injury for Ali Baba to mould the ball of sticky onto the bottom of his rear-view mirror, leaving Fang to dangle upside-down like some sort of horrible mascot, but she wasn’t in any frame of mind to make anything of it. She was too busy feeling extremely ill.

‘Which way?’ he asked.

‘Left,’ Fang replied, ‘then second on your right into Pordand Avenue.’

‘Thanks. The whole reason,’ Ali Baba continued, ‘why I went into dentistry once I arrived here was this horrid feeling of guilt, because of what I’d done; you know, the palm-oil jars and the boiling water. I assume you know about all that? Good. All right, I decided, now I’m here I’m going to devote the rest of my life to curing pain and alleviating suffering. Pretty noble sentiments, don’t you think?’

‘Uhg,’ Fang replied, swaying crazily as Ali Baba swung the wheel for the right-hand turn. ‘Carry on here for about half a mile, then left at the lights.’

‘Thank you. The sad part of it is,’ Ali Baba went on, ‘that all that time, I was living in mortal terror of Akram showing up. And I mean really serious terror. You have no idea how much it costs in electricity when you sleep with the light on all the time. Strictly speaking, I ought to make him pay me for that. And then there’s all the alarm systems and infra-red cameras and surveillance gear. None of it’s cheap, you know. And all that was because I was afraid of him. That’s a bit of a joke, in the circumstances.’

‘Left here. What are you going to do?’

‘Kill him,’ Ali Baba replied casually, indicating and waiting for a lorry to pass. ‘As painfully as I sensibly can. I’m not going to bother with anything elaborate, of course, because once you start on that track you’re virtually inviting the bastard to escape. Ye gods, though, I’m looking forward to this. I mean, we’re talking very old scores indeed here. He’s going to think boiling water was on the soppy side of humane.’

‘Right. Urn …’

‘And dentistry,’ Ali Baba went on, one hand on the wheel, ‘gives you some fairly esoteric insights into the nature of pain, with specific reference,’ he added, smiling dreamily, ‘to agony.’ He glanced up at the rear-view mirror, caught a glimpse of his reflection in it, and looked back at the road. ‘And when I’ve finished with him,’ he said, ‘we must have a chat about you.’

John Fingers cleared his throat. Thirty-nine eager faces turned and looked at him.

‘Right,’ he said. ‘Here’s the plan.’

He wasn’t sure why he’d said that. It seemed appropriate somehow, but he didn’t actually have a plan, more a sort of rough pencil sketch, with lots of rubbing out and a shopping list on the other side. Maybe it was a case of the situation bringing out the best in him.

‘Seaview Road,’ he said. ‘The industrial units. Now I want a nice clean job, in and out as quickly as possible, no messing around. Any questions?’

‘Skip.’

‘Yes?’

‘What’s an industrial unit?’

On the negative side, it had to be admitted, they were all thick. You’d be hard put to it to find thirty-nine dozier people this side of a cryogenic vault. ‘It’s a sort of shed,’ he explained.

‘A shed?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Who’d keep anything worth nicking in a shed?’

Patience, John Fingers muttered to himself. ‘Not that sort of shed,’ he replied. ‘More a sort of - well, unit.’

‘You mean a shed for keeping gold and jewels in?’

More patience. ‘It’s not actually gold and jewels we’re after,’ he said, ‘more your sort of portable power tools and petty cash style of thing. I mean,’ he added, as thirty-nine faces suddenly became as glazed as a row of cucumber frames, ‘don’t get me wrong, if we do happen across any gold and jewels it’ll be a nice bonus. But what we’re actually on the lookout for is electric drills, orbital sanders, arc-welding gear, anything we can get a few bob for down the car boot sale.’

He paused, and was immediately deluged in a flood of requests for footnotes. He held up his hand for silence. ‘Let’s keep it simple, shall we?’ he said. ‘If it’s not nailed down, we pinch it. All right?’

Thirty-nine heads nodded. ‘Right, Skip.’

‘Then let’s go.’

‘Skip.’

‘Oh for crying out— Yes?’

‘Why can’t we steal anything that’s been nailed down? Is it a curse, or something?’

‘No, it’s just - yes, that’s right, it’s a curse. Can we go now, please?’

Why me, he reflected, as he backed the coach out into Merrivale Crescent. I was never cut out to be a gang leader. The Smiths have always been loners, single operators; mostly, he was realistic enough to admit, because of their almost supernatural knack of getting caught, but never mind.

Suddenly finding himself the leader of a gang of fanatically loyal, desperately eager to please, terminally stupid desperadoes wasn’t quite what he’d had in mind when he woke up that morning; but it had been a pretty strange day in any case. A pretty strange week, come to that.

‘Watch my offside front wing,’ growled the coach.

‘Shut up, you.’

Obviously it wasn’t a coincidence. A less straightforward man would be trying to puzzle it all out at this point, but John Fingers wasn’t like that. When things dropped on him from Heaven, he didn’t stare up at the sky and demand an explanation; nor did he hold them up to the light or shake them to see if they rattled. No; he accepted them at face value, filed off the serial numbers where appropriate and, whenever possible, immediately sold them in pubs. In this instance Destiny had, for reasons best known to itself, endowed him with the ability to talk to consumer durables and a gang of thirty-nine semi-skilled assistants.

John Fingers wasn’t remotely interested in where they’d come from; not knowing where things came from was bred in the bone as far as he was concerned. Somewhere in the vastness of the Universe there was a lorry with a duff tailgate, from which all these wonders had tumbled into his lap. His role was to make the best of them he could. It was a way of life that seemed to work with video recorders, forty-piece canteens of cutlery, socket sets, wax cotton jackets, answering machines and all sorts of other things that came his way; no reason he could see why it shouldn’t apply to miracles.

If he hadn’t been so preoccupied with thoughts of this nature, he might have noticed that he was sharing Seaview Road with a big blue Volvo, which drew up round the corner as he parked the coach outside the entrance to the industrial estate and opened the doors.

‘We’re here,’ he said. ‘You two, Whatsyername and Thing, see to the gates. The rest of you …’

Perhaps he should have been more explicit. Rashid and Yusuf, answering to the generic names he’d given to all his new-found followers, had seen to the gates by charging them with their heads. They evidently had very hard heads. Ah well, he told himself, at least it’s got the gates open.

‘Right, that’ll have to do,’ he said briskly. ‘You lot, follow me.’

If they’d been wearing caps and carrying satchels, you’d have reckoned it was a school party. As they trooped through the mangled gates, furtive as an express train, inconspicuous as North America, the curtains of the darkness parted for a moment and a shadowy figure fell in behind them, followed them for a while, mumbled something into the top pocket of his coat and sneaked off into the shadows.

‘This,’ muttered Ali Baba, crouching in the doorway of Unit 13, ‘is getting a little bit worrying.’

‘You’ve noticed, at last.’

Ali Baba shook his head. ‘That large party of idiots over there,’ he whispered. ‘I think I recognise them. Hang on, we can double-check this.’ He counted up to forty and then nodded. ‘What in hell’s name are they doing here? And who’s the new leader?’

‘Does it matter?’ Fang replied, her teeth chattering. ‘Look, they’ve gone off down the other end of the estate. Let’s get on with it and then you can let me go.’

‘You think you’re going to be let go? Really? That’s that stuff, what’s it called, optimism. Never could get the hang of it myself.’

It was at this point that Ali Baba felt the loss of King Solomon’s ring. Most of the time he was glad, on balance, to be rid of it; having to stop and pass the time of day with every lock and thermostat and circuit-board you meet takes up such a lot of time, and generally speaking gets you absolutely nowhere. Just occasionally, though, it can be astonishingly helpful.

‘You wouldn’t happen to know,’ he asked, ‘exactly how one goes about shooting off a lock? It looks so easy in the films, but in real life I haven’t a clue how to go about it.’

‘Why not just try the handle?’ Fang replied.

Ali Baba shrugged and, with the intention of showing what a silly suggestion that was, gave the door handle a half-hearted twist. The door opened.

‘Good Lord,’ he said. Then he kicked the door hard and charged in.

There are people who can simply blunder into difficult, dangerous situations and expect to be able to carry it off by trusting their instincts and riding their luck. They’re the sort of people who also win lottery prizes with the first ticket they buy and attract the attention of off-duty Hollywood talent scouts at karaoke evenings at their local pubs. Unless you’re one of these, playing the law of averages with a full Legal Aid certificate in your pocket, it’s best to do it the other way and think things through carefully before kicking open doors and sprinting through. You never know what you’re likely to find on the other side.

In Ali Baba’s case, it turned out to be a very large, bad-tempered bird. His specialised knowledge meant that he was able to identify it as a phoenix, but unfortunately it didn’t extend to what you do to mollify one when you’re two feet away from it and looking down its throat. At least he was able to eliminate one possibility straight away. Saying, ‘Now then, nice bird,’ had no perceptible effect whatsoever.

‘Ark!’ screamed the phoenix, flapping its wings. ‘Ark ark graaaaoar!’

Two and a half seconds later, Ali Baba was able to add drawing a gun and shooting at it to his definitive list of counter-productive ways to deal with an angry phoenix. He was just about to add falling flat on his face and cowering when Fang said, ‘It’s all right, he’s with me.’

‘Then what was all the shooting in aid of?’ the phoenix grumbled. ‘Daft bugger, he could do somebody an injury.’

Ali Baba looked up, puzzled. ‘Tooth fairy?’ he said.

‘Yes?’

‘What’s going on? Why are you on my side all of a sudden?’

Fang grinned. ‘That’s three molars and a couple of upper front canines you owe me, Mister Dentist,’ she replied. ‘I may be small, but I’m not stupid. Would you like me to switch the light on? It’ll be so much easier if we can all see what we’re doing.’

A moment later, the light snapped on. The phoenix, dazzled, let out a pained squawk and huddled away into a corner, leaving Ali Baba face to face with Akram and Michelle.

‘This is …’ Akram began to say, but he got no further. This is where it starts getting complicated. Let’s break it up into five phases.

As soon as he saw Akram, Ali Baba raised the gun, pointed it at Akram and said ‘You bastard!’ That’s as far as he got, so we’ll leave him for a moment and go back to Michelle.

She had started off with the intention of getting between Akram and her father, calming the situation down, getting a conversation going and then leaving them to it while she made a nice conciliatory cup of tea. Seeing Ali Baba raise the gun, however, she rapidly revised her plans and ducked behind Akram, saying, ‘Eeek!’ We’ll leave her there for the time being, and turn to Akram.

Actually, Akram didn’t do much, apart from starting to say ‘This is …’ and thinking better of it. Whatever he may have had in mind to do, the situation was radically altered by the light coming on. This meant that he now had a clear, sharply-defined shadow on the whitewashed wall behind him.

Finally, just to complete the picture, this was the precise moment when John Fingers opened the back door to Unit 13 and walked straight in, to find himself staring down the barrel of Ali Baba’s gun.

One last thing. The electric kettle, which Michelle had put on a short while ago, now came to the boil and switched itself off. That’s Phase One.

Phase Two began with Akram’s shadow. It wasn’t in the sunniest of moods to begin with, thanks to Akram’s devious use of subdued lighting to keep it in its place. Suddenly restored, it snatched its chance, swept along the wall and went for Ali Baba’s throat, dragging Akram along behind it like a very small child clinging to a huge kite on a windy day. Instinctively, Ali Baba swung round to face it and fired the gun. Dentistry and skill at arms are not mutually exclusive, but proficiency at one doesn’t necessarily imply competence at the other. He missed badly. There was a scream.

For the phoenix, still recovering from its nasty experience with the light, a sudden loud noise in a confined space was the last straw. Rising like a startled pheasant (the comparison is only partially appropriate, because it was ten times bigger than the largest pheasant ever recorded) it rocketed towards the open door in a flurry of pounding wings, cannoned into Ali Baba and sent him spinning against the wall before hurtling away into the night in the general direction of the Isle of Wight.

John Fingers, wondering what the hell he’d just walked into, had meanwhile grabbed the kettle, as being the nearest remotely useful object to hand, with the intention of throwing boiling water in the face of the man who was pointing the gun at him. His principal mistake lay in not unplugging the kettle first. As it was, the kettle remained firmly tethered to the wall, ruining his aim. There was another scream.

That’s Phase Two.

Phase Three kicks off with Ali Baba hitting the wall. The back of his head connected with the light switch, turning the light off. Akram’s shadow immediately vanished. Akram himself, suddenly released, tripped over something - possibly a dead body - on the ground, lurched forward, slipped on the wet floor and went crashing into Ali Baba, hitting him in the solar plexus with his head. Feeling Ali Baba’s fingers round his throat, he grabbed wildly for something to pull himself up by, found the wall and, quite by chance, switched the light on again. End of Phase Three.

BOOK: Open Sesame
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