Earth, Air, Fire and Custard


By Tom Holt

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 A novel set in the magical offices of The Portable Door, now a majorly fantastical film starring Christoph Waltz, Sam Neill, and Miranda Otto.

“Tom Holt may be the most imaginative satirist to land on our shores since Douglas Adams.” — Christopher Moore, New York Times bestselling author

J.W. Wells seemed to be a respectable establishment, but the company now paying Paul Carpenter's salary is, in fact, a deeply sinister organization with a mighty peculiar management team.

Paul thought he was getting the hang of it – particularly when he fell head over heels for his strangely alluring colleague, Sophie – but death is never far away when you work at J.W. Wells. Our love-struck hero is about to discover that custard is definitely in the eye of the beholder. And that it really stings.

The J.W. Wells & Co. Series:
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

Other titles from Tom Holt:
When It's A Jar
The Outsorcerer's Apprentice
The Good, the Bad and the Smug
The Management Style of the Supreme Beings
An Orc on the Wild Side

Holt Writing as K. J. Parker:
Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City
How To Rule An Empire and Get Away With It
A Practical Guide to Conquering the World


The soft, blurred light of dawn. A small, lonely island at the mouth of a sheer-sided fjord. A sparkle pierces the muffling sea fret; the flat clang of steel on steel troubles the eerie silence.
A small boat bobs at the water’s edge. Two sets of footprints in the sand lead up the beach towards the thin grass. Two men stand facing each other, catching their breath by unspoken mutual consent. Both are exhausted, their hair spiked with sweat. One, gripping a sword, peers nervously over the rim of a hacked and splintered shield; the other leans heavily on the shaft of an axe.
Simultaneously they take a step forward, their bodies immediately tense as drawn bowstrings. The swordsman takes a low guard, while his opponent hefts the long Danish-pattern axe and waits, analysing the swordsman’s defence. Presumably he sees something, because he plunges forward and swings the axe round his head and down, pulling the swing a little to one side at the last moment. The bright cannel-ground edge strikes the shield’s rim but skids off, and the axe bites deep into the turf; spotting an unexpected advantage, the swordsman pushes forward with his shield and pivots his right shoulder for a devastating diagonal cut—
‘Hold it,’ grunts the axeman. ‘Offside.’
The swordsman checks the stroke painfully in mid-air. ‘It was not!’ he protests.
‘Offside,’ the axeman repeats firmly. ‘Look at where you’ve got your feet.’
The swordsman glances down, tries to draw his left foot back.
‘I saw that,’ the axeman says.
‘All right,’ the swordsman sighs. ‘I suppose, technically—’
‘Technically be buggered,’ the axeman interrupts, ‘offside is offside. Free hit to me.’
‘Yes, all right,’ grunts the swordsman. ‘Though if we’re going to be all picky about it—’
With a tremendous effort, the axeman heaves the axe-head out of the turf and swirls it round his head in a flashing arc, while his enemy stands perfectly still behind his ruined shield. The axe impacts on the rim, shearing through the steel band and deep into the timber, only just stopping short of the swordsman’s left hand. In reply the swordsman jerks the shield and the trapped axe-head sideways, nearly disarming his opponent—
‘You’re doing it again,’ the axeman points out.
‘What?’ Another quick glance. ‘Oh, snot. It’s ever since they changed the LBS rule,’ the swordsman complains bitterly. ‘I’d only just figured out what the old rule was, too.’
‘There’s nothing to figure out,’ the axeman says coldly. ‘Left foot no more than five inches in front of the shield-boss, or it’s a foul shot. Perfectly simple. A child of four could understand it.’
‘Yes, well.’ The swordsman isn’t happy, but he lets his left arm drop enough for the axeman to dislodge his blade. ‘I can’t see what was so bad about the old rule. If they’d only leave well alone and stop fiddling with it—’
‘Another free hit to me,’ the axeman points out, with a smirk. ‘You aren’t doing terribly well so far, are you?’
The swordsman grins back at him. ‘Given that you’ve had six free hits and I’m still standing,’ he said, ‘looks like I’m not the only one. If you ask me, you’re trying to hit too hard. Relax, loosen up, let the axe do the work instead of trying to force it.’
The axeman pulls a face and tries again. This time, perhaps because he’s tired and irritated, he manages to miss completely. The swordsman sniggers.
‘While we’re on the subject of rules,’ the axeman replies, tugging his blade out of the turf once more and stepping back into a defensive back-guard, ‘what about rule 46, section 3, no unnecessary talking?’
‘That’s a bit rich coming from you,’ says the swordsman huffily. ‘Talk about your pot and kettle—’
Before he can finish his sentence the axeman swings again, bending his knees and drawing the stroke very low as he aims for the swordsman’s ankles. But the swordsman reads the cut perfectly and jumps high in the air from a standstill, so that the blade passes harmlessly under his feet. As he lands, one foot jams the axe-shaft down, ripping it out of the other man’s hands. Almost before the swordsman gets his balance he swings; the axeman rears away, arching his back, and just manages to avoid the sword-blade, but the sudden violent effort unbalances him. He seems to hang in the air for a moment, both hands waving helplessly, before crashing down on his back. As soon as he’s down the swordsman cuts again; the axeman wriggles sideways, almost but not quite far enough, as the very tip of the blade engraves a line across his forehead, about an inch above eye-level.
‘And on a double-wound score, too,’ the swordsman gloats. ‘Now then—’
‘Just a minute,’ sighs the axeman. ‘You haven’t got a clue, have you?’
The swordsman scowls horribly, but stays put. ‘Now what?’
‘Rule 27,’ replies the axeman smugly, ‘section 14. Gotcha!’ he adds.
The swordsman’s eyebrows bunch together like huddling sheep. ‘Remind me,’ he growls.
‘With pleasure. The back-foot rule.’
‘Exactly. When making an offensive stroke at a fallen or unbalanced opponent, the back foot must be in contact with the ground at all times. The ground, please note; not the other bloke’s axe-handle.’ He smiles unpleasantly. ‘Another free hit to me.’
The swordsman clicks his tongue. ‘Get on with it, then,’ he mutters. ‘And this time, don’t bunch your shoulders together like that. You want to be careful you don’t chop your own foot off.’
With a scowl that’d curdle mercury the axeman starts to get to his feet.
‘Hang on,’ the swordsman objects. ‘Just what do you think you’re doing?’
‘What does it look like?’
The swordsman beams like the sunrise. ‘Rule 17,’ he says, ‘section 8. All free hits to be taken from the position the striker is in when the foul shot occurred.’ He licks his lips. ‘Free hit to me,’ he adds cheerfully.
‘It doesn’t say that.’
‘Yes, it does.’
‘It does.’ The swordsman’s face is a study in baffled rage. ‘Are you calling me a liar or something?’
The axeman nods. ‘Yes,’ he says.
‘You take that back or I’ll smash your face in . . . Oh, nuts,’ the swordsman adds. The axeman chuckles, and slowly gets to his feet.
‘Supervening fresh challenge,’ the axeman says cheerfully. ‘Rule 92. The current bout is declared null and void, start all over again.’
The swordsman makes a growling noise. ‘You did that on purpose,’ he mutters. ‘Tricked me into a fresh challenge.’
‘Yes,’ the axeman agrees. ‘Perfectly legal,’ he adds. ‘You can check if you like.’
‘When you’re ready,’ grunts the swordsman, icily polite.
His opponent retrieves his axe, spits on his hands. ‘In your own time,’ he replies.
For a moment the swordsman hesitates; then he darts sideways, feinting a lunge to the other man’s left knee, converting it effortlessly into a rising backhand slash. The axeman parries just in time with the axe-handle, but the swordsman’s blade slices it neatly in two, leaving his enemy gripping eighteen inches of headless shaft. Before the axeman can move or cite rule 38 the swordsman rocks back on his heels and lunges again— —And thrusts his sword deep into a thick patch of swirling grey mist, which instantly dissolves. ‘Oh, for crying out loud,’ the swordsman yells. ‘That’s cheating.’
The last few wisps of mist wriggle like maggots in the air and glow briefly with yellow-gold fire, spelling out the words So report me in twelve-inch runes. The swordsman throws his sword on the ground and jumps on it. Then he frowns, stoops down and picks up a handful of fine-grained dirt, which he tosses into the air where the letters had appeared. The dirt flares vividly into sparkling light, revealing the outline of a door or gateway, complete with lintel, hinges and big round doorknob.
‘Right,’ the swordsman grunts; sheathing his sword, he reaches out, grabs the outline of the doorknob and twists it sharply a quarter-turn—
—And vanishes, never to be seen in this timeline again.
Paul Carpenter was dragged out of a singularly nasty dream - in which he was being chased through a thick, bramble-draped forest by the teddy bear he’d owned when he was six - by a knock at the door. He sat up, opened his eyes and realised that he’d fallen asleep in his chair in front of the TV. That in itself was hardly surprising, since there’s never anything good on in the summer. Who, on the other hand, would want to pay him a visit at this time of night?
Paul scrabbled for the remote, hit the standby button, and stood up. There it was again: knuckles on the woodwork. He’d had the television’s sound turned right down, so it couldn’t be upstairs complaining about the noise; and door-to-door salesmen rarely wasted their energy trudging up the four flights of badly lit stairs. As he opened the door with his right hand, he pinched sleep out of his eyes with his left.
‘Hello,’ said a familiar voice.
‘Uncle Ken.’
‘I know that. Can I come in?’
The yawn got past Paul’s defences and escaped before he could do anything about it, but Uncle Ken wasn’t the sort to be offended by yawns, or indeed anything that didn’t actually draw blood. He ducked under Paul’s arm (no great feat for a man of his minimal stature) and scuttled like a startled lizard into the living-room. By the time Paul caught up with him, he’d poured himself a large glass of the fine malt whisky that Paul had been given for his birthday two years ago, and was sitting in the only comfortable chair. Paul slumped a little and perched on the other one. ‘Didn’t know you were in town, Uncle Ken,’ he said.
‘I guessed as much,’ Uncle Ken replied, ‘otherwise you’d have locked up your booze and put the chain on the door. Got any corned beef?’
Corned beef. Paul thought about that for a moment and shook his head.
‘Oh. Not to worry, anything’ll do, cheese or ham or tongue. Not too much butter on the bread. Oh, and a bit of fruit’d go down nicely.’
Paul smiled grimly, went into the kitchen and made two rounds of industrial-chicken sandwiches. On the side of the plate he perched the apple he’d been saving for tomorrow; then, to save himself another trip, he opened the fridge (Sod it, he said to himself, the little light’s on the blink again) and took out the very last can of beer.
‘Cheers,’ Uncle Ken said, pulling the ring with his usual surprising grace. Five feet nothing in his cowboy boots, sausage-fingered and practically circular, Uncle Ken nevertheless managed to do even the simplest thing with the elegant poise of a geisha pouring tea. ‘You not having anything?’
Paul shook his head. ‘So,’ he said, trying to sound cheerful. ‘Have you got a gig in these parts or something?’
‘No such luck, son,’ Uncle Ken replied with his mouth full. Paul had known what the answer to his question was likely to be before he asked it. For the last twenty years, Uncle Ken had been pecking out a sparse living doing stand-up comedy in obscure, short-lived clubs and bars up and down the country, with occasional enforced sabbaticals in the construction, catering and retail-petrol industries. Ironic, really; Paul’s mum had chosen him to be her only son’s godfather because at that time he’d been an ineffably respectable actuary, and because he was the most boring man she’d ever met. Whether it was the strain of turning up at Paul’s christening and forking out for a small imitation pewter tankard that’d pushed Uncle Ken over the edge into the nomadic life he now pursued, Paul had no idea. He hadn’t lost much sleep over it.
Watching someone else eat the food you’d hoped would tide you over till pay day isn’t the most fun you can have with the lights on, and Paul couldn’t help feeling slightly annoyed. But being small-minded about it wouldn’t bring his bread and sliced chicken back, so he dredged up a smile from somewhere and asked politely after his godfather’s health and general well-being.
‘Not so hot,’ Uncle Ken replied. ‘Did three nights in Peterborough in January, went over very nicely, not a huge crowd, probably the venue getting flooded out by a burst sewer the week before didn’t help. Joined up with with an experimental performance-arts collective for a bit - interesting bunch, there was a bloke who welded bits of angle-iron while his girlfriend sang medieval plainsong and played the zither, and another girl who juggled with razor blades stuck into apples - she left the group at Redcar - and a couple of those living-statue blokes, only they were so good the audience never figured out they weren’t real, and a lad who did barefoot tightrope-walking on an electric fence, and me, of course. We were planning to take the show over to Canada for the Saskatchewan Arts Festival but we couldn’t afford the fare. How about you?’
Paul grinned. ‘Oh, nothing exciting,’ he said.
‘Last I heard, you were just about to start a new job.’
Paul nodded. ‘That’s right. Been there nine months now.’
‘Liking it?’
‘Not a lot.’
Uncle Ken shrugged. ‘Pack it in, then. You’re young, no ties, find something you really want to do and do it. Like I did.’
Paul shook his head slowly. ‘Nice idea,’ he said, ‘but I can’t.’
‘Can’t find anything you like doing?’
‘Can’t quit. Long story,’ he added, stifling another yawn. ‘But the bottom line is, I’m stuck there for the foreseeable future. Bummer, but there it is.’
Uncle Ken frowned. ‘That’s no kind of an attitude,’ he said. ‘I was the same when I was your age; I’d just finished college, got my qualifications, people had expectations I had to live up to, all that crap. Just meant I wasted the best years of my life, doing a stupid rotten job I hated. You want to get out there, have adventures, strange new worlds and all.’
Paul laughed, like a dry stick breaking. ‘Oh, there’s plenty of that kind of thing where I’m working now,’ he said. ‘It’s the adventures and the strange new worlds that’re the problem, not the mindless tedium and stuff. I can handle mindless tedium, it’s—’ He stopped, then shook his head. ‘You don’t want to hear about that,’ he said. ‘So, tell me, this girl who juggled the apples—’
‘You can tell me about it if you want to.’
‘Yes, but I don’t. Did she wear gloves, or did she just have particularly hard skin on her hands, or what?’
‘Yes, you do.’
‘No, I don’t.’
Uncle Ken was giving Paul a stern look from behind his enormously thick spectacle lenses. Seen from the wrong angle, they made his eyes look like huge hard-boiled eggs. ‘I’ve known you since before you were born,’ he said, ‘and there’s something you want to tell someone about, but you’re hesitating because you think it’ll sound stupid, or I won’t believe it, or something. I’m right, aren’t I?’
‘Yes,’ Paul confessed. ‘But you don’t want to hear about it. Really. Trust me.’
‘Bollocks.’ Uncle Ken poured himself another glass of whisky and rolled an extremely thin cigarette. ‘I’m a very good listener, me.’
‘Yes, but you don’t want—’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘No, you—’ Paul stopped and thought for a moment. ‘All right,’ he said. ‘Stop me when you’re prepared to admit I was right, which won’t take long. And if you’re going to smoke in here—’
‘Get on with it.’
So Paul told him all about it: how he’d got a job as a junior clerk with a firm called J. W. Wells & Co in the City, without knowing what it was they actually did; how it’d come as rather a shock to him when he found out that they were one of the top six firms of family and commercial magicians in the UK, specialising in the entertainment and media, mining and mineral resources, construction, dispute resolution, applied sorcery and pest-control sectors; how he’d almost immediately tried to resign, and how he’d found out a little while later that the reason why they wouldn’t let him was that his parents had financed their early retirement to Florida by selling him to the partners of JWW, who wanted him because the knack of doing magic ran in his family to such an extent that it was inevitable that he’d have it too; how he’d briefly found true love with Sophie, the other junior clerk, shortly before she was abducted by Contessa Judy di Castel Bianco, the firm’s entertainments and PR partner and hereditary Queen of the Fey, who permanently erased Sophie’s feelings for Paul from her mind; how he’d learned scrying for mineral deposits from Mr Tanner, who was half-goblin on his mother’s side, and heroism and dragonslaying from Ricky Wurmtoter, the pest-control partner, and a bit of applied sorcery from the younger Mr Wells (before the elder Mr Wells turned him into a photocopier); and how he’d just started learning spatio-temporal displacement theory with Theodorus Van Spee, former professor of classical witchcraft at the University of Leiden and inventor of the portable folding parking-space; oh, and how he’d died, twice (only the second time was an accident) and been put on deposit for a while in the firm’s account at the Bank of the Dead—
‘Told you,’ Paul said. ‘But you wouldn’t listen.’
Uncle Ken’s eyebrows had risen so high that they’d popped up above the rims of his glasses, like hairy slugs surfing a really high wave. ‘All right,’ he said, ‘I’m surprised, I’ll give you that.’
‘Surprised,’ Paul repeated.
Uncle Ken nodded. ‘And a bit disappointed,’ he said. ‘I thought I’d talked your dad out of that idea when you were born. Not fair on the lad, I told him; just because he can do all that stuff, doesn’t necessarily follow that he’ll want to. But to be honest with you, I never did trust him much.’
Over the last nine months, Paul thought he’d more or less lost the knack of being shocked. ‘You knew?’
‘’Course I knew, it’s not exactly a secret in your family.’ He scowled. ‘Only, I suppose your dad kept quiet about it, if he was planning to sell you all along; what you don’t know, you can’t get bolshy about. But I could’ve told him you wouldn’t like it. All down to temperament, see. I mean, obviously you’d have the talent, with your Uncle Ernie being—You know about your Uncle Ernie?’
Paul nodded. ‘Oh yes,’ he said. ‘I know all about him.’
‘Well, there you are, then. He was all right, actually, until just before the end. He’d have been proud to think you were carrying on the tradition.’
Paul shook his head. ‘No, he’s not. He doesn’t like me very much. Mind you, it’s my fault he’s stranded for ever in the vaults of the Bank of the Dead, so I suppose he’s got grounds for being all snotty about it. But for crying out loud, Uncle Ken. You might have told me.’
Uncle Ken shrugged. ‘Not my place to interfere,’ he said. ‘Your mum would never’ve forgiven me. Anyhow, would you have believed me if I had told you?’
‘Yes, but—’ Paul sighed, and slumped back in his chair; a bad idea, since there wasn’t much holding it together apart from force of habit. ‘It just really pisses me off,’ he said, ‘everybody in the whole world turning out to know all about this magic thing apart from me. And nobody telling me,’ he added bitterly. ‘The first I knew about it was when I stayed late in the office one night and nearly got eaten alive by goblins.’
‘No chance of that,’ Uncle Ken said, shaking his head gravely. ‘Contrary to what you hear, they’re mostly not dangerous unless you provoke them. And—’
‘Yes,’ Paul snapped, ‘I know, apparently I’m part goblin myself, and they hardly ever eat family. It’d have been nice if someone had prepared me for that particular revelation, just a bit. Not that I’ve got anything against them particularly - well, that’s not true, they scare the shit out of me, but so do most things in life. But even so—’
‘Never mind about that,’ Uncle Ken said quickly. ‘Tell me more about this bird of yours. Sophie, was it?’
Bird, thought Paul; hail to thee, blithe spirit, bird thou never wert. ‘She isn’t, any longer,’ he said sharply. ‘I told you, Countess Judy scrubbed all that out of her mind, and now it won’t come back. So that’s that,’ he said, trying to sound brave. ‘It’s a real bitch, because we still have to work together, and she can’t quit either; another judicious purchase by the partners, you see.’
Uncle Ken nodded slowly. ‘Always was your trouble,’ he said, ‘falling in love with anything that stays still long enough. ’Course,’ he went on, ‘it’s not real. It’s because you know nothing’s ever going to come of it, you know that as soon as you start getting obvious, they always burst out laughing or tell you to get lost, so it’s safe - oh, right,’ he added, with a grin. ‘You’re going to tell me it wasn’t like that this time.’
Paul had gone a deep beetroot colour. ‘Actually,’ he said, ‘it was going just fine till Countess Judy ruined everything. I mean, we’d moved in together, we were making plans for the future . . .’
‘Bloody hell,’ Uncle Ken interrupted. ‘No wonder you were scared.’
‘I was not scared.’ Well, of course he’d been scared; more so, in fact, than when Ricky Wurmtoter had pointed the crossbow at his heart and pressed the trigger and killed him. ‘It was wonderful. We really loved each other. And then—’
‘And then, at the very last minute, you escaped.’ Uncle Ken raised a hand, before Paul could interrupt or find something to use as a weapon. ‘Didn’t seem like that at the time, I know. It hurt like buggery, I’m sure. Probably you felt just like shit quiche on a bed of wild rice. But really, deep down, you knew you’d got out just in time, before the roof caved in. You can’t kid me, son, I’ve known you too long.’
‘It wasn’t like that.’ Why did it matter so much that Uncle Ken wouldn’t believe him? ‘It wasn’t like that at all. I didn’t want it to end. I’d have done anything—’
There must’ve been something in his voice, like a tiny drop of blood in shark-infested water. Uncle Ken smiled faintly. ‘But you didn’t, did you?’
‘I couldn’t, it wouldn’t have been—How do you know about it, anyway?’
‘I don’t. But you’re just about to tell me.’
Paul gave in. ‘It was after we’d rescued her,’ he said, ‘and she realised what that evil bitch had done to her. JWW make this thing called a love philtre, you drink it and fall in love with the first person you see. Cast-iron guaranteed, they’ve been selling it for two hundred years and it’s never failed. She offered to drink it, so things’d be back to how they were. But I said no.’
‘You said no. I see.’
‘Because it wouldn’t have been real,’ Paul protested. ‘It’d have been as though I’d snuck up when she wasn’t looking and spiked her coffee with it or something.’
‘You’d have done anything,’ Uncle Ken said slowly. ‘Only you didn’t. You were a chicken standing on the conveyor belt, looking straight at the plucking machine, and suddenly the power goes off. You weren’t about to go jumping up, saying you’d got fifty pee for the meter. Admit it, Paul. That’s exactly how it was.’
Paul shook his head. ‘You’re right,’ he said, ‘about how I used to be. But it was different with Sophie, and now—’
Uncle Ken laughed out loud. ‘And now you’ve got a bloody wonderful excuse, you’ve got a note from God saying you’re let off PE for ever. Believe me, it doesn’t work like that. Next bird you see that doesn’t look like a garden gnome with warts, it’ll be the same old story all over again. Come on, Paul, be honest with yourself. Remember Mandy Bolsover?’
Paul winced. ‘Uncle Ken, I was fourteen. You can’t blame someone for—’
‘Mandy Bolsover,’ Uncle Ken repeated. ‘Big girl, captain of the shot-put team. You spent a whole term drooping around like a poisoned goldfish, then you wrote a suicide note and took four paracetamol. And you’d never said a single word to her.’
Paul gave him a look that’d have stripped the Teflon off a space shuttle. ‘Anyway,’ he said. ‘It’s not going to happen ever again, I’ve already seen to that. I mean it,’ he added. ‘Really.’


  • "Wacky humour bubbles through the polished narrative ... Holt doesn't skimp on the flashes of brilliance."—SFX
  • "Uniquely twisted ... cracking gags."—The Guardian
  • "Dazzling."—Time Out
  • "Highly amusing ... Eloquently snarky prose."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Holt is, as usual, absurd, funny, and light-handed enough with the completely ridiculous bits to keep the story moving, assuring that the reader doesn't actually notice how bizarre the story has become, or how tangled the mystery is, until it's nearly done."—Booklist
  • "A definite must for all fans of comic fantasy."—ENIGMA
  • "Frothy, fast and funny."—Scotland on Sunday
  • "Frantically wacky and wilfully confusing ... gratifyingly clever and very amusing."—Mail on Sunday
  • "Tom Holt's comic fantasy is a great, uplifting read, fit to grace any reader's book collection."—Waterstones Books Quarterly

On Sale
Sep 4, 2012
Page Count
416 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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