By Tom Holt

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Monsters are roaming the streets of London. Of course, some monsters are scarier than others:

Unicorns? No bother.
Vampires? Big deal.
Werewolves? Ho hum.

Lawyers? … Aaargh!

Duncan’s boss doesn’t think that he’s cut out to be a lawyer. He isn’t a pack animal. He lacks the killer instinct. But when his best friend from school barges his way back into Duncan’s life, with a full supporting cast of lawyers, ex-wives, zombies and snow-white unicorns, it’s not long before things become distinctly unsettling.
Hairy, even.


Praise for Tom Holt
‘Highly readable silliness’ SFX
‘Uniquely twisted . . . cracking gags’
‘Frantically wacky and wilfully confusing . . . gratifyingly
clever and very amusing’ MAIL ON SUNDAY
‘Dazzling’ TIME OUT
‘Wildly imaginative’ NEW SCIENTIST
‘Frothy, fast and funny’ SCOTLAND ON SUNDAY

By Tom Holt
Expecting Someone Taller
Who’s Afraid of Beowulf?
Flying Dutch
Ye Gods!
Here Comes the Sun
Faust Among Equals
Odds and Gods
Djinn Rummy
My Hero
Paint Your Dragon
Open Sesame
Wish You Were Here
Only Human
Snow White and the Seven Samurai
Nothing But Blue Skies
Falling Sideways
Little People
The Portable Door
In Your Dreams
Earth, Air, Fire and Custard
You Don’t Have to be Evil to Work Here, But It Helps
Someone Like Me
The Better Mousetrap
Dead Funny: Omnibus 1
Mightier Than the Sword: Omnibus 2
The Divine Comedies: Omnibus 3
For Two Nights Only: Omnibus 4
Tall Stories: Omnibus 5
Saints and Sinners: Omnibus 6
Fishy Wishes: Omnibus 7
The Walled Orchard
Alexander at the World’s End
A Song for Nero
I, Margaret
Lucia Triumphant
Lucia in Wartime

Hachette Digital

Published by Hachette Digital 2009
Copyright © 1997 by Patricia Daniels Cornwell
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being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
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is available from the British Library.
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For Mike Hughes,
Without Prejudice

Wee small hours of a cold, moonlit night; last call of the shift, nothing more urgent than a drunk with a broken leg, so no need to floor the pedal or burn rubber on the way back to the hospital. In the front passenger seat, the driver’s mate glances at the wing mirror.
‘There’s a dog following us,’ he observes.
There’s a slight edge to his voice, which makes the driver check his own mirror. ‘They do that,’ the driver says, frowning as he speaks. ‘More in the country than in town, but—’
‘Big dog.’
The driver nods. ‘Alsatian, right?’
‘Yeah. Or one of them - what’re they called? You know, they pull sleighs.’
The driver’s frown deepens. ‘Reindeer?’
Behind them, the big dog runs, red tongue lolling. The driver checks his speed - just legal - and feels his right foot nudge the pedal just a little harder, for some reason. Then the mirror again. Big dog still there. Big dog apparently not bothered.
‘There’s another one - look.’
The driver can’t look just now, since he needs to keep his eyes on the road as they round a corner. When he has attention to spare again, he sees not two big dogs, but three.
‘What speed are you doing?’ the driver’s mate asks.
Not enough. The driver’s right foot urges the pedal down, and he reaches forward to flip on the siren. Two or three seconds pass before he looks again. Still there. Three big dogs. Four.
‘Shit,’ says the driver’s mate, with feeling.
Just as well there’s no traffic on the roads, in the suburbs at four in the morning. Silly, the driver can’t help thinking as he nudges the needle up to forty-five, it’s just dogs. They like to chase cars. Man’s best friend, and all that.
How fast can dogs run, anyway?
Forty-five, no problem: by amber light and moonlight he can see their backs flexing with the pace, powerful easy movements, muscles rippling with fierce joy under the thick grey-white coats. At fifty, though, the stride gets laboured and more determined. In the back of the driver’s mind an ancient memory stirs; because once upon a time long ago, dogs weren’t dogs. They were something quite other.
‘Put your foot down,’ the driver’s mate urges, unnecessarily. ‘Jesus, they’re gaining on us.’
Fifty-five, and the dogs’ backs are bent like drawn bows as they force the pace. Sixty beats them, and gradually they dwindle, from dogs into dots into specks. The driver begins to slow down.
‘Shut that bloody siren off,’ he mutters.
A steady, law-abiding twenty-nine, as if to demonstrate that nothing really happened back there; no yellow eyes and swaying tongues in the rear-view mirror, no pursuit, or fear—
‘You get that a lot in the country,’ the driver’s mate says, his voice rather higher than usual. ‘Dogs chasing cars. Not so much in town, because of getting run over. My cousin Norman—’
For some reason, however, the narrative urge fails him. He sits quiet for the rest of the ride, and keeps checking the wing mirror. When the white glare of the hospital lights blots out the darkness, he says, ‘Huskies.’
‘Dogs that pull sleighs; at the North Pole and stuff. Saw a programme about them once. Fast as shit, and they can run seventy-two hours without stopping.’ They pull up, and reach for the door handles. ‘Didn’t know you get them in this country, but there you go. I blame the Internet.’
The driver doesn’t answer as he steps down onto the tarmac, his feet not quite steady. Just one of those things, he tells himself; but even so he can’t help wondering whether, somewhere on the B2043 between the multiplex and the slip-road for the Ash Grove garden centre, five big yellow-eyed dogs were still grimly, determinedly running.
In every working day there is a still moment, a point of balance; a fulcrum, if you like, around which the scales pivot. The slightest nudge at this point decides whether it’s going to be a good day or a bummer. It can come at any stage in the proceedings; it can be a massive boot on your instep in the crowded rush-hour Tube, or a call from a rabid client at 5.29, just as you’re pulling your raincoat sleeve up your arm. It can be a fleeting wisp of a smile from the new girl in Accounts, the dismissal of a loathed superior, an unexpected and undeserved pay rise or a bluebottle floating in your mid-morning coffee. But it will come, every day, and leave its little scar.
On the twenty-sixth of January it came at three minutes past nine. It hummed along the phone wire from Reception and shrieked to be picked up, like a fractious baby, before Duncan Hughes had even had a chance to sit down.
Duncan knew it for what it was before the receiver brushed his ear. ‘Hello, Mr Martinez,’ he said. ‘How can I—?’
Help you. But nobody could help Mr Martinez. Not in a jurisdiction that outlaws euthanasia (or, in his case, justifiable pesticide).
‘That’s terrible, Mr Martinez,’ Duncan said after a while. ‘I’m really sorry to hear—’
But not nearly as sorry as he would be. ‘And that’s not all,’ Mr Martinez went on. ‘They came back.’
‘Did they?’
‘They fucking did. And you know what they did then?’
You couldn’t help feeling sorry for him, up to a point (the point, usually, on which the balance of your day teetered, as noted above). Anybody into whom the Revenue has got its needle-pointed teeth to that extent has to be pitied on some level, even if it was seventy-five per cent his own fault. But, as raids followed investigations and hearings before the Special Commissioners were appealed to the Chancery Division, there came a moment when pity ran out, and the hiatus flooded with a vast, horrified weariness; a longing for the wretched man to bugger off and take the pity and the terror with him.
‘And on top of that,’ Mr Martinez said, ‘now they’re asking for the deposit-account statements right back to 1987.’
What really puzzled Duncan about the Martinez case was the poor fool’s ferocious tenacity. Anybody with the brains of a carrot would have given up long since: changed his name, emigrated, his quietus made with a bare bodkin, whatever. Not Ricky Martinez; which meant—
‘I think the best thing,’ Duncan sighed, ‘would be for you to come in and see me, and we’ll talk it through. Today, if—’
‘I can make five-fifteen.’
Whimper, Duncan thought. ‘You couldn’t possibly get here a bit earlier?’
‘Fine. Quarter past five, then, and -’ Duncan took a deep breath ‘- please be sure to bring all the papers with you.’
‘All the papers?’
‘All of them,’ Duncan said bitterly.
All of—’
‘Yes. See you then.’
‘All right,’ said Mr Martinez. ‘Cheers.’
Click-buzz, said the phone. Duncan held it at arm’s length and scowled at it for a moment before putting it back. In many ways it reminded him of the former Mrs Hughes: every day he held it close to him, and every day it whispered in his ear horrible things that ruined his life. He reached for his diary and pencilled in the appointment. Then the phone rang again.
So, people tended to say when meeting Duncan for the first time, what do you do, then? And, when he told them he was a lawyer, and they’d deliberately restrained their lips from curling and asked what sort of lawyer, he’d reply, ‘Oh, death and taxes, mainly’; and then, inevitably, would come one of the Sixteen Jokes - there are only sixteen, and he’d heard them all, so very many times - and after that, the question, ‘But don’t you find all that stuff pretty depressing?’ And he’d answer, ‘Yes.’ Then, of course, they’d change the subject. It wasn’t that he minded being universally regarded as somewhere between a vulture, a hang-man and the jolly gravedigger in Hamlet; that was a fair cop, after all. It was partly the fact that everybody assumed he really wouldn’t want to talk about his job; partly the fact that they were right—
‘Mr Woodcock for you,’ said Reception. To her credit, she didn’t snigger.
- And partly the fact that, every time he met up with someone he hadn’t seen for ages, their first question would be, ‘So what are you doing now?’, as though it was inconceivable that anybody could still be doing his rotten, shitty job, a whole six months later—
‘Mr Wood—’
‘We’ve decided,’ said Mr Woodcock. ‘She’s having the shoes, and I’m keeping the costume jewellery. Thought you ought to know, so everything’s above board.’
Wait for it, Duncan told himself.
‘But it’s still not right.’ The words gushed out of Mr Woodcock like poison from an abscess. ‘She distinctly told me, the last time at the nursing home, I was to have everything in the big suitcase; and what I’m saying is, why would she think I’d want a load of old shoes and plastic bloody beads? It could only be because she didn’t want Dolly to have any of it, so—’
‘Mr Wood—’
‘And I’ve only agreed because the worry is killing my wife, she’s lost four pounds in weight and the physio says her wrist is all just nerves, so I just can’t go on living like that, and if Dolly’s set her heart on hounding an innocent woman to her grave over a few pairs of old shoes that’re only fit for the skip anyhow, well, what can you do with someone like that? So anyway, I thought I’d better just check with you, make sure it’s all legal and proper.’
‘Absolutely, Mr Woodcock. The will just says—’
‘Oh.’ Disappointment. ‘So there’s nothing in the will says Dolly can’t have the shoes.’
One good thing about the phone: the man at the other end can’t see the faces you pull. ‘Really it’s a matter of being practical, Mr Woodcock. I suppose you could argue, strictly speaking—’
Duncan had completely forgotten what he’d been going to say. Probably just as well. ‘That’s fine, Mr Woodcock,’ he snapped politely. ‘Glad to hear that’s all sorted out. Now we can crack on with selling the house and the stocks portfolio and the investment properties in Surrey, and it should all be wrapped up by June. The way the market’s shaping, it should be a good—’
‘Yes, right. But about the shoes—’
That, Duncan thought as he put the phone down some time later, was the really weird, scary thing about the death biz. Greed - naked, vicious, more than happy to tear out its own sister’s throat rather than cede her a few clapped-out old shoes with the heels trodden down; but the money, the seriously big money, didn’t seem to interest him. So he stood to cop for over a million and a half quid. So what? Dolly was getting the shoes. The fact that, with the money he’d flushed down the bog through whining to his hourly-paid lawyer about the injustice of it all, Mr Woodcock could’ve bought enough shoes to satisfy the wildest dreams of Imelda Marcos was apparently neither here nor there.
People, Duncan thought.
Work helped calm his jangled sensibilities: standard letters to banks, building societies, stockbrokers, National Savings, estate agents, the Probate Registry, the Revenue. As he droned them into the dictating machine, he spared a thought of deep pity for his secretary, who had to put up with his voice reverberating through her headphones all day long. Kindly forward us a note of the closing balance at your earliest convenience, together with the sum total of deposit interest accrued at date of death. What a thing to whisper in the ear of a sensitive young girl, or even Tricia (sensitive as a shock absorber, delicate as the Atlas Mountains, quick as a glacier, his girl Friday). Did his numbing bleat echo through her nightmares, a voice in her head that only she could hear, like God and Joan of Arc? The possibility twisted in his conscience like an arrowhead.
Duncan tended to think of his progress through the working day in terms of Frodo’s journey through Mordor; in which case, his eleven-thirty meeting with Jenny Sidmouth was Shelob’s lair. Not that Ms Sidmouth looked particularly like a giant spider. She was long and thin, like a skewer: sharpest around the eyes, which could pierce any armour as effectively as the English arrows at Agincourt. Her dark hair was precisely straight (she must have it engineered, rather than cut) and her slender, bony fingers tapered eventually down to close-bitten nails.
As always, she let him stand in the doorway for seven seconds before acknowledging his presence; then she laid down her sheaf of computer printouts, and smiled right through him.
‘Not so bad this month,’ she said. ‘Up seven-point-six-three on this time last year.’ But her eyes were narrowing, like the diaphragm of a laser lens. ‘That said, we did decide on a target increase of ten-point-seven, which leaves you three-point-o-seven per cent short. Perhaps you’d like to explain that.’
Duncan shrugged. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘People just aren’t dying fast enough, I guess.’
You could get away with saying something like that to Jenny Sidmouth, if only because she regarded anything you said to her with equal contempt. Humour, irony or rank insubordination - she swept over them all like flood water. ‘Let’s see,’ she went on. ‘Billable hours are up, that’s encouraging, but charges rendered are down, and there are a number of discrepancies I’d just like to run though with you.’ Instinctively, Duncan groped for the arms of the chair - something to hold on to as the wave crashed down on him - but of course there weren’t any. ‘For example, the Hohenstaufen file. On a time-plus-value basis, you should have charged twenty-seven thousand, but you only billed nineteen. Why was that?’
(Because the money-grubbing bastards would’ve screamed the place down if I’d charged them that much; which was why I did most of the work at home, on my own time, so I wouldn’t have to bill them for it. But of course I daren’t tell you that—)
‘Goodwill,’ he said. ‘Sort of a loss-leader. Like Captain Scott,’ he added, mostly because he still could.
‘Strictly speaking,’ (did she know any other way?) ‘you should have cleared that with me first. And then there’s the Martinez file. You haven’t rendered an interim bill for three months. Standard procedure for long-running cases is a bill every six weeks. Can you perhaps—?’
‘Well, yes,’ Duncan said, and for some reason he thought of the Polish cavalry in World War Two charging the German tanks with lances. ‘I sort of used my discretion there a bit. It’s sort of an unusual case, really.’
Jenny Sidmouth nodded. ‘Very unusual. It’s the only case in my department where an interim bill hasn’t been sent out for three months, which makes it actually unique. Perhaps you’d like to do something about it. By Friday.’
No need to say yes or of course or I’ll see to it immediately; just as there’s no need for the grass to acknowledge the edge of the scythe. Ms Sidmouth rolled on over him, her voice sandpaper, her eyes drills: Parsons, Barlotti, Singh, Bowden Allshapes, the Atkinson Will Trust - all the sleepers, cupboard-skeletons and too-difficults that lurked in the places in his filing cabinet where he was too scared or too ashamed to go. It was, Duncan decided, a bit like the Last Judgement would be, if Margaret Thatcher was filling in for God. With an effort he tuned out the voice and did a few quick calculations. A three-point-whatever shortfall wasn’t bad enough for the sack, so the only possible way for the ordeal to end was The Speech. And, sure enough—
‘Duncan,’ she said, tightening the apertures of her eyes down to pinpricks, ‘let’s make no bones about this.’
Thought so. And, of course, he’d heard The Speech before. Parts of it he could recite along with her. Somehow, though, knowing exactly what was coming didn’t make it any easier to handle. If anything, the reverse. Like injections: you know it doesn’t really hurt, far less actual pain than a paper-cut or stubbing your toe. But as you sit there in the waiting room, your knees can’t help shaking and the knot in your stomach slowly gets tighter than a schoolboy’s tie; and then when the buzzer goes and it’s your turn—
He’d said it before he’d realised he was speaking. Pure reflex: he didn’t have anything to say. A bit like raising your arm to shield your face when a fifteen-storey building’s about to fall on top of you.
‘No, sorry. You first.’
The look on Ms Sidmouth’s face quickly reduced Duncan from three dimensions to two. ‘As I was saying,’ she said, ‘in the final analysis, it all comes down to attitude. In this business, Duncan, we’re all predators.’ Her nostrils twitched slightly, as if scenting the prey. ‘There’s no room for herbivores in the legal profession. You can’t just mumble along, chewing the cud. If you want to eat, you’ve got to hunt and kill. We’re not just a team, you know, Duncan, we’re a pack; and a pack runs at the pace of the fastest dog. So it’s no good waiting for work to come to you. You’ve got to go out there into the long grass and flush it out; and when you’ve got hold of its neck, you’ve got to bite. Letting clients off the hook just because you’re sorry for them isn’t predator thinking, Duncan. That’s your dinner you’re letting get away from you. If it moves, you go after it; that’s the rule you’ve got to learn to live by. Remember: we’re here to get paid, so if you’ve done the work, you’ve got to charge, and charge, and keep on charging—’
‘Like the Light Brigade.’
As already noted, using humour against Jenny Sidmouth was pointless, like trying to stab a dragon with a rose. ‘Exactly like the Light Brigade, Duncan, yes. No matter what the enemy throws at you, no matter how tough it gets along the way, you’ve got to keep going until you get there. It’s survival of the fittest, it’s natural selection, it’s the thrill of the chase and the law of the jungle . . .’
‘Ah,’ Duncan said sagely. ‘Only I didn’t do jungle law at college. Timetabling screw-up: you could do either jungle law or tax and probate, and I thought—’
‘Attitude.’ She stared through him, as though he was one of those transparent tropical fish and she was a cormorant. ‘That’s what it comes down to. In this business, you’re either a wolf or a sheep; and I want to you ask yourself, really deep down: which one are you?’
Baa, Duncan thought. ‘I see,’ he said. ‘Now you’ve explained it to me, I think I understand.’
‘Excellent.’ A smile you could’ve shattered into chunks and stuck in gin and tonic. ‘I’m so glad.’ Jenny Sidmouth looked past him, towards the door. ‘I’ll be keeping an eye on your printouts from now on, Duncan. I’m sure you won’t let me down. Thanks so much for your time.’
The law of the jungle, he thought as he wandered slowly back to his office; yes, well. It was all very well telling himself it was high time he got away from this bunch of Neanderthals and found himself a proper job, but it wasn’t as easy as that. He’d been trying for - what, six months? During that time, the agency had set him up with half a dozen blind dates. He’d built his hopes up, trotted along to the interviews, sat down in the chair with his confident, capable look smeared all over his face; and guess what? Each time, the eyes that had stared back at him across the interview desk were exactly the same as the eyes he was trying to get away from: the same greedy, vicious glow - predators, Jenny Sidmouth had said, and for once he reckoned she was spot on. He hadn’t needed to listen to the words they said. The eyes told him everything he needed to know. It didn’t matter what sort of face they were lurking in - round and chubby, thin and pointy, smooth or hairy. They were always the same eyes, identical to the ones that glowered at him here, and they gave him the creeps.
But (Duncan reminded himself as he sat down and reached for the drift of yellow Post-It notes that had settled round his phone while he’d been away from his desk) it’s all very well fantasising about chucking in the legal profession for good: going straight, retraining, carving out a new and meaningful life for himself as a restaurant critic or a gentleman thatcher. The simple fact was, he was a competent lawyer and no bloody good at anything else. True, he had a crummy job, but not so crummy that shelf-stacking or burger-flipping would be better. Besides, he had a mortgage and a credit card to think of.
Even so. Predators. Well.
One good thing about being a tax lawyer. When you’re sunk in a bottomless slough of depression and self-loathing, you can always phone the Revenue and reassure yourself that you’re not the greenest, slimiest breed of algae floating on the surface of the gene pool - not by a long way. He returned a call from Our Ref X/187334/PB/7 at the Capital Taxes Office, and it made him feel a lot better.


  • Highly readable silliness—SFX

On Sale
Feb 7, 2008
Page Count
432 pages

Tom Holt

About the Author

Tom Holt was born in London in 1961. At Oxford he studied bar billiards, ancient Greek agriculture and the care and feeding of small, temperamental Japanese motorcycle engines interests which led him, perhaps inevitably, to qualify as a solicitor and emigrate to Somerset, where he specialized in death and taxes for seven years before going straight in 1995. He lives in Chard, Somerset, with his wife and daughter.

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