Faust Among Equals


By Tom Holt

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The management buy-out of Hell wasn’t going quite as well as had been hoped. For a start, there had been that nasty business with the perjurors, and then came the news that the Most Wanted Man in History had escaped, and all just as the plans for the new theme park, EuroBosch, were underway.


The Laughing Cod in downtown Hlidarend is rated as one of north-east Iceland’s premier restaurants. Or one of north-east Iceland’s restaurants. In practice, it amounts to the same thing.
On the three hundred and sixty-four days each year when the Laughing Cod isn’t being a restaurant, you can still walk in to the bar and order a coffee; and this is precisely what the Most Wanted Man in History did.
Six of the seven regulars turned and stared at him as he did so; the seventh, Wall-Eyed Bjorn, just carried on complaining about herring quotas.
Torsten Christianssen, the ever-popular proprietor of the Cod, poured the coffee, waited for it to settle, and leant back against the cash register, soaking in the thrill of a new experience.
‘Just passing through, are you?’ he asked after a while.
The newcomer looked up. ‘You could say that,’ he replied, with only the very faintest trace of an unfamiliar accent. ‘Could you fix me a toasted sandwich, while you’re at it?’
‘Sure,’ Torsten said. ‘Coming right up.’ He withdrew into the kitchen, wondering what the hell he was doing. It was theoretically possible to get a toasted sandwich in the Cod, but you needed references from two doctors and a justice of the peace before your application could even be considered.
When the stranger had eaten his sandwich, drunk his coffee and spent about forty-five seconds studying the framed photograph of Einar Sigfussen’s record grayling on the wall opposite, he stood up and asked for the bill.
‘The what?’
‘The bill,’ repeated the stranger. ‘Please.’
‘Oh, yes, right. Coming right up. Anybody here got a pencil or something?’
There was a brief, stunned silence, which was resolved when the stranger unclipped one from his top pocket and handed it over. Torsten took it as if it was red hot, and tentatively pressed the top.
‘How do you spell coffee?’ he asked.
The stranger told him; then took the paper from his hands, glanced at it, and fished a banknote out of his shirt pocket. A ten-thousand kroner note.
‘Hey,’ said Torsten, when God’s marvellous gift of speech had been restored to him. ‘You got anything smaller?’
The stranger looked at him, took back the note and put it down on the counter. Then he smiled at it.
It began to shrink.
You couldn’t say how it did it; it just gradually occupied less and less space, until eventually it was about the size of a postage stamp. The stranger picked it up, blew on it, and passed it back across the counter.
‘Is that better?’ he asked.
On the other side of Death, there is a tunnel, leading to an archway. Then the road forks, and this is the point at which you find out whether the ethical system you’ve been following all these years was the right one after all.
If you’ve backed the Betamax version, you’ll come at last to a rather impressive black stone gateway. There is no name or street number, but the chances are that you’ll have guessed where you are anyway. However, by way of a heavy hint, the gateway bears the celebrated inscription:
- or so your Michelin Guide would have you believe. It’s very possible that it still does, but you can no longer see for yourself, because the whole of the architrave of the gateway is now covered with a huge banner, on which is painted the legend:
- and when you get up really close, you can see that it actually says:
- just to ram the point well and truly home. At this juncture, you will be met by your guide, who will escort you to the ticket office (where you can also purchase guide books, souvenir pencils and locally-made coconut ice). The Michelin Guide doesn’t mention that; but if you think about it, how would they know, anyway?
Once you’ve passed the ticket office, your tour will take you all round the justly celebrated architectural gems that comprise the inner courtyard, with the exception of the Council Chamber, which is not yet open to the public. This is a pity because apart from the Michelangelo floor (remember where we are) the Chamber houses three late Veroneses, a rather fine set of Dürer engravings and, naturally, the finest collection of works by Hieronymus Bosch in the universe. They are, of course, all portraits, such as may be found in the boardroom of any long-established corporate body.
On the day in question, the Council was in session, and had been for sixteen hours. The Council members (or Board of Directors, as we must call them now) each sat under his, her or its respective portrait, each one looking just the same as he/she/ it had when Ronnie Bosch had painted them six hundred years previously; except that they were all wearing, somewhat self-consciously, identical red T-shirts with the words:
printed on them in big white letters.
‘I still reckon we haven’t thought this thing through properly,’ said the Production Director stubbornly. He’d opposed the whole idea of a management buy-out from the start, and had only come in with the rest of the consortium under considerable pressure.
‘Listen, Harry,’ replied the Sales Director, lashing his tail irritably. ‘We know what you think, so you stick to keeping the ovens going and we’ll all get along just fine. You leave the management side to the grown-ups, okay?’ For the record, he’d been the one applying the pressure, with a pitchfork, in the small of the Production Director’s back.
‘Actually,’ interrupted the Admin Director wearily, ‘Harry has got a point there, of sorts. I mean, it’s one thing getting the blasted franchise. Keeping it’s a different crock of entrails entirely.’
The Sales Director scowled, displaying a wide selection of unlikely components. ‘All you can do is make problems,’ he complained. ‘We’re running a business now, people. I suggest we all remember that, okay?’
‘Sure.’ The Finance Director nodded what, for the sake of argument, we shall call his head. ‘We all know that, Steve, you’ve told us often enough. I’d just like to remind you that if those bloody inspectors catch us breaking the terms of the franchise, they’ll have us out of here like the proverbial pea through a trumpet. Is that what you want?’
The Sales Director groaned theatrically and paused for a moment to scratch his nose (the one growing up out of his navel, not the one sprouting between his eyebrows). ‘Look, Norman,’ he said, ‘there’s ways round all that stuff, you know that as well as I do. All it takes is a little . . .’
The Finance Director shook what he had recently nodded. ‘And there’s such a thing as being too bloody clever for your own good, Steve. You’d do well to remember that.’ He rubbed the bridge of his beak with a thoughtful claw, and continued; ‘If they think we’re not fulfilling the public service part of the deal . . .’
‘But we are.’
‘I’m not so sure.’
‘Neither am I,’ interrupted the Production Director. ‘Take the perjury business, for instance. We could have got in serious schtuck with that.’
‘I hadn’t heard about any perjury stuff,’ murmured the Finance Director, tapping the edge of the table with his offside front wing. ‘Sounds interesting.’
The Production Director grinned unpleasantly, even for him. ‘I’ll bet,’ he said. ‘Look, in the franchise agreement it says, clause nine, sub-para three, all perjurers shall be broken on the wheel, right?’
‘Right,’ agreed the Finance Director. ‘Standard procedure, it’s what we’ve been doing for years. So?’
‘So this dangerous clown here only had the whole department cleared out and fifty roulette tables put in. If I hadn’t found out about three days before the last random check . . .’
‘I still don’t know what you’re getting so uptight about,’ growled the Sales Director. ‘A wheel’s a wheel, right? And I can guarantee the whole lot of them were broke by the time . . .’
He subsided under the glare of the Finance Director’s six beady red eyes, and took a sudden interest in the pencil on the table in front of him.
‘That,’ said the Finance Director, ‘is definitely going too far. As,’ he added sharply, ‘is this idea of changing the name of the place to Netherglades Theme Park. How the hell am I meant to explain that to the inspectors, Steve? A smear campaign by the printers?’
The Sales Director sniffed - quite an achievement, considering. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Even a bunch of blinkered, concrete-brained civil servants is going to realise the importance of image in a business like this. You honestly believe the punters are going to be able to relate to the image we’ve got at the moment? I mean, would you fork out good money if you thought you were going to get your lungs ripped out with a blunt meathook?’
‘But that’s the business we’re in, Steve.’
The Sales Director waved an impatient talon. ‘So are an awful lot of people, Norman, that’s not the point. The point is, you can torture the punters and roast them alive and coop them up in confined spaces indefinitely and flay them on spits and they’ll still fall over themselves to give you money, just so long as you can convince them it’s fun. That’s what the holiday industry’s all about, Norman. Just so long as your image is okay . . .’
‘I think we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one for the time being,’ said the Finance Director smoothly. ‘I mean, there’s obviously good arguments on both sides. Yes, we have to watch our backs as far as the inspectors are concerned. On the other hand, we’ve got a bloody good compliance record as far as everything else is concerned. Like, you know, waiting lists cut, catering costs reduced by half, maintenance schedules improved, security as good as ever . . .’
There was a soft cough from his left. If the Head of Security had had a head, he’d have shaken it.
‘To a certain extent, yes,’ he muttered.
The Finance Director turned round sharply, and his horns twitched; a sure sign of impending trouble.
‘What do you mean, a certain extent?’ he demanded. ‘Look, either nobody’s escaped or . . .’
‘I was coming to that.’
As the echo of the report died away, a faint breeze dissipated the remaining wisps of smoke, revealing that (against all the odds) the Vampire King was still on his feet.
‘Hmm,’ he croaked. ‘I’m not sure how many points you score for that.’
On the other side of the valley, Kurt ‘Mad Dog’ Lundqvist blinked, swore quietly under his breath, and reached into his top pocket for another silver bullet. Nothing. Just a compass, a pearl-handled switchblade and a roll of peppermints.
‘Oh-kay,’ he called out. ‘You want to do this the hard way, that’s fine by me.’
A few minutes later they were facing each other, mano a mano in the sand. Lundqvist could see that the Vampire King was sweating now, his face more than usually drawn, his teeth protruding just a telltale smidgen more. All the King could see was the flash of the noon sun on Lundqvist’s mirror Ray-Bans.
‘Not like you to miss the heart at four hundred yards, Kurt,’ muttered the King. It was intended as a taunt, but Lundqvist accepted it as a statement of fact; which, of course, it was.
‘It’s this goddamn awful rifle,’ he replied. ‘Comes of trying to do two jobs at once, I guess. You ready?’
The King backed away. ‘How do you mean, two jobs, exactly?’
‘I promised the guys at Terminator Monthly I’d do a write-up on the new McMillan .30. Nothing like actually testing the bugger in the field, I always say. Ready yet?’
The Vampire King looked round. He was six hundred years old, completely invulnerable to anything except silver bullets and fire-hardened yew, with the strength in his hideously attenuated body of nine rogue elephants. He was also shit scared.
‘We don’t have to do this, you know,’ he mumbled. ‘We can just walk away, and . . .’
Lundqvist shook his head; a tiny, precise movement. The peak of his cap came up level with the King’s third nipple. He tested the balance of the mallet in his right hand.
‘Sorry, Vlad,’ he said. ‘A contract’s a contract. Nothing personal.’
Maybe the King’s mistake was to try and rush him, or maybe he didn’t make a mistake at all. When you’ve met your match, that’s it; no shame, no dishonour, just the natural course of events. In any case, there was a short blur of activity, a thud, the hollow sound of mallet-head on stake. And that was that.
As six vindictive centuries caught up with the Vampire King, he raised his head one last time and tried to give Lundqvist the stare. All that happened was that he got the stare back, with interest.
‘Just tell me, Kurt,’ he croaked with the last of his breath. ‘Why the hell do you do it?’
‘The money, Vlad. So long.’
When it was all finally over, Lundqvist got to his feet, wiped the stake off on a patch of couch grass and stuck it back in his belt. There were times, he realised, when the job did get to him, although he found it hard to admit it to himself. Not the danger, of course, or the incessant conflict with hideous and unnatural monsters, or the mind-bending horrors he came face to face with every day of his life. Certainly not the killing. When a man is tired of killing, he’s tired of life.
No, Lundqvist said to himself as he tucked the vampire’s severed head under his arm, shouldered the rifle and started the long walk back to the jeep, I guess what really bothers me most is the lack of excitement.
The Most Wanted Man in History, wishing to get from Iceland to Holland and having no transport of his own, had hitched a lift. Nothing unusual in that, except that he’d hitched it off an airliner.
Since there’s virtually nowhere in Iceland where you can put down a 747 without breaking bits off it, the fugitive had left it hovering about four feet off the ground, on a cushion of pink cloud. With a little grunt of effort, he jumped up, caught the pilot’s door, wrenched it open and swung inside the cabin.
‘Hi,’ he said cheerfully. ‘Thanks for stopping.’
The pilot looked at him, eyes rimed over with incredulous terror. What he wanted to say was, Who are you, what’s happening, have you the faintest idea what’s going to happen to me when the federal aviation boys found out I dumped my plane in a volcanic desert just because some guy stuck his thumb out. What actually came out was, ‘I can take you as far as Schiphol if that’s any good to you.’
‘Schiphol’s fine,’ replied the fugitive, dropping his rucksack on the floor and flopping into the wireless operator’s chair. ‘Thanks a lot.’
Without the pilot’s having to do anything, the engines roared, the idiot lights on the console flickered into angry, bewildered life, and the pink cloud slowly floated up to around about ten thousand feet. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.
The wireless operator and the co-pilot took an early lunch.
‘Going far?’ the pilot asked, as the plane resumed its flight. He was dimly aware of a heavy, oppressive force lying across large areas of his mind like a sleeping cat on the knees of an impatient visitor, blanking off those parts of his brain that might want to raise such issues as what in God’s name is going on here. Dimly aware, however, butters no parsnips.
‘Just bumming around, really,’ the fugitive replied. ‘And Amsterdam’s as good a place as any for that, as far as I’m concerned.’
Another thought that was hammering vainly on the locked door of the pilot’s consciousness was, Hang on, why am I taking this nerd to Amsterdam when this flight’s supposed to be going to Geneva? It hammered and hammered and hammered, and nobody came.
‘Very much a fun place, Amsterdam, from what I’ve heard,’ the pilot’s voice agreed. ‘Not that I’ve been there for, oh, fifteen years, I suppose. Not to stop, anyway. Been travelling long?’
Flight AR675, Flight AR675, come in please, urgent, come in, please, yammered the radio. Sundry captives in the coal cellar of the pilot’s mind tried using a big chunk of basic survival instinct as a battering ram, but all they did was hurt their shoulders.
‘I move about,’ replied the fugitive, looking out of the window at the North Sea. ‘Born under a wandering star, that sort of thing.’
Flight AR675, Flight AR675, what the fuck do you think you’re doing up there? Are your instruments shot, or what?
The pilot turned to his passenger. ‘Should I answer that, do you think? They seem rather uptight about something.’
‘I shouldn’t bother,’ the fugitive replied. ‘They’ll call back later if it’s important.’
‘I guess so.’ The pilot leant forward and twiddled a dial on the console. The voice of Oslo air traffic control was abruptly replaced by Radio Oseberg’s Music Through The Night. By virtue of some sort of ghastly air bubble in the stream of probability, they were playing ‘Riders In The Sky’.
‘Do you know,’ said the pilot after a while, ‘something tells me that if we carry on this course much longer we’ll be violating Swedish airspace. Do you think they’ll mind?’
‘I don’t think so,’ replied the fugitive firmly. ‘Nice people, the Swedes.’
- At which point, two massively-armed Saab Viggens were scrambled out of Birka and screamed like stainless steel banshees north-east on a direct interception course -
‘Very expensive country, though,’ the pilot was saying. ‘I had to buy a pair of shoes there once, and do you know how much they cost? Just ordinary black lace-up walking shoes, nothing fancy . . .’
‘You don’t say.’
‘And coffee’s absolutely astronomical, of course. Not so bad in the little back-street cafes and things, of course, but in the hotels . . .’
Ernidentified ercraft, ernidentified ercraft, here is calling the Svensk er force. Turn beck immediately or down you will be shot. Repeat, down you will be . . .
‘Would you like me to talk to them?’ suggested the fugitive.
‘Gosh, would you mind? That’s extremely kind of you.’
‘No problem.’
The pilot of Gamma Delta Alpha Five Three Nine set his jaw, repeated the message one last time for luck, and programmed the weapons systems. First, a five-round burst from the twin twenty-mil Oerlikons, then a couple of heat-seekers, and then back home in time for a quick beer before the press conferences.
Calling Gamma Delta Alpha Five Three Nine, come in please.
The pilot was a relatively humane man, but he couldn’t help just the tiniest twinge of disappointment, deep down in the nastier bits of his repressed psyche. Receiving you, ernidentified ercraft. Turn beck immediately or . . .
The radio crackled. Yes, thanks, it said. Do you know your flies are undone?
Proof, if proof were needed, that technology has outgrown the ability of Mankind to control it. At the end of the day, even a really first-class piece of state-of-the-art hardware needs a human to steer it, and that human must inevitably be subject to fundamental human instinctive behaviour; such as, for example, quickly glancing down to check his zip. But in the third of a second that takes, a modern class one fighter bomber can get seriously out of hand . . .
‘Good Lord,’ exclaimed the pilot of the 747, ‘that fighter nearly crashed into that other fighter. Whoops!’
‘Butterfingers,’ agreed the fugitive.
‘I do hope they’ll be all right.’
‘I expect so. Marvellous things, ejector seats.’
‘You wouldn’t get me in one of those things without one.’
The fugitive craned his neck slightly to look at the sea. ‘Expensive pieces of kit, these modern warplanes, I expect.’
‘Waterproof ?’
‘I assume so.’
‘That’s all right, then.’
Lundqvist strode into the tiny branch sheriff’s office in Las Monedas and banged the bell until it broke. Then he shouted.
The deputy on duty doubled as the postmaster, the trading standards officer, the funeral director, one of the town’s two chartered accountants and the blacksmith’s assistant. It was therefore several minutes before he was able to answer.
‘The reward on these two,’ snapped Lundqvist. ‘In cash. And I want a receipt.’
The deputy looked up at the two severed heads and quickly ran a mental scan through his various portfolios to ascertain which one was relevant. It was easy enough to narrow the field down to two alternatives; and relatives bringing loved ones to the Las Monedas funeral parlour generally tended to have rather more of the bits.
‘Hold on,’ he said. From under the desk he produced a receipt book and a blue cap with red facings marked FEDERALES. It was entirely the wrong uniform, of course, but this was the sticks. You had to make do with what you could get.
‘Vampires,’ said Lundqvist, patiently (by his standards, at least). ‘This one’s Vlad the Indefinitely Respawned, and this one’ - he broke off and glanced at the label hanging from the left ear - ‘this one here is Count Bors Vilassanyi. I’ve got the ISBN1 details somewhere, if that’s any help.’
‘Just a moment,’ replied the deputy, thumbing through a loose-leaf binder. ‘Vlad, Vlad - there’s a lot of Vlads isn’t there? - ah, right, here you go. Vlad the Indefinitely Respawned. Hey, Category Three, not bad. What did you say the other one was?’
‘Count Bors Vilassanyi. Two ‘s’s in Vilassanyi.’
‘Sorry, doesn’t seem to be here.’
‘Try the supplement.’
‘Yes, right. No, not in here either.’
‘Okay, try looking under zombies.’
‘Right - yes, here we are. Category Four A.’ The deputy frowned. ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘but we don’t keep that much cash in the office.’
‘Bank’s still open.’
‘Or the country, come to that. You could try America, just up the road and turn left; they might be able to help.’
Lundqvist sighed. ‘Fuck that,’ he said. ‘I guess I’ll just have to take a cheque.’
‘I’ll need to see your licence and some proof of identity.’
Lundqvist growled ominously. ‘Here’s the licence.’
‘Thanks, that all seems to be in order. How about this proof of identity?’
With no apparent exertion whatsoever, Lundqvist picked the deputy up one-handed by the lapels, held him about two inches from the tip of his nose and treated him to a long, special stare.
‘Is that okay?’
‘That’ll do nicely, Mr Lundqvist.’
There was a brief interval while the deputy laboriously wrote out a cheque, during which time Lundqvist amused himself by shuffling through the file of Wanted posters on the desk. Since they were a trifle behind the times at Las Monedas, the file read more like Lundqvist’s curriculum vitae. Sorry. Curriculum mortis.
Theodore ‘Fangs’ Lupo - March 1992, Guatemala. Trouble getting his pelt over the border, Lundqvist recalled, because of the endangered species by-products regulations. Ironic, since it was largely due to his efforts that werewolves were endangered in the first place.
Rameses IV - July 1992, Cairo. One of the few contracts that had given any real degree of job satisfaction. Amazing what these new hi-tech wallpaper pastes could do with three-thousand-year-old papyrus bandages.
Aldazor, Lord High Marshal of the Infernal Hosts - August 1992, Akron, Ohio. A miserable job, that, and he was still getting letters from the Vatican legal department about infringement of copyright. Copyright bullshit. Show me a priest who uses bell, book and 20mm recoilless rifle, and then sue me.
With a sigh, Lundqvist flicked through the rest of the file. Nothing but the commonplace, the routine, the uninspiring, the run-of-the-mill. For a man who had got into this line of work purely for the adrenaline rush of living on the edge, he was spending far too much time pottering about in the epicentre.
And then . . .
He stopped.
He turned back.
‘Hey,’ he said. ‘How long’s this one been out? Don’t remember seeing it before.’
The deputy looked up over the rims of his spectacles. They had belonged to his great-grandfather, and it was a moot point as to whether the myopia that ran in his family was cause or effect.
‘Oh, that one,’ he replied. ‘That’s new. A man delivered it specially.’


On Sale
Sep 4, 2012
Page Count
320 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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