In Your Dreams


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

Ever been offered a promotion that seems too good to be true? The kind where you snap their arm off to accept, then wonder why all your long-serving colleagues look secretly relieved, as if they're off some strange and unpleasant hook?

It's the kind of trick that deeply sinister companies like J.W. Wells & Co. pull all the time. Especially with employees who are too busy mooning over the office intern to think about what they're getting into. And it's why, right about now, Paul Carpenter is wishing he'd paid much less attention to the gorgeous Melze, and rather more to a little bit of job description small-print referring to "pest" control.

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


Chapter One

Twenty-five past five on a cold autumn Friday. Outside, Central London growled and shoved its way homewards in a blaze of white, green, red and amber light. In the cashier’s office on the top floor of 70 St Mary Axe, Benny Shumway glanced up at the clock on the wall opposite his desk. Time to cash up, then home.

He leaned forward, grabbed a handful of pink cash chits out of his in-tray and leafed through them quickly, his mind adding up the numbers faster than silicon could ever manage: a quick note in the Big Ledger, another in the Small Ledger and the One True Ledger and the Other Ledger, a precise thumb-click on the end of his silver Parker ballpoint. Five feet two inches tall, bearded and windscreened by bottle-end spectacles as thick as tank armour, Benny Shumway worked with the speed, precision and assurance of a Japanese swordsman.

Last chore: the banking. He flipped open the lid of the cash box, took out a thick wad of fifty-pound notes and riffled through them like a New Orleans gambler shuffling cards. £12,850. It being Friday night (no cash to be left on the premises over the weekend), he pulled the paying-in book out of the top drawer of his desk, uncapped a Bic one-handed, jotted down the amount, date, account details; flicked out the slip, put the book away, laid the slip on top of the neatly faced-up banknotes, recapped the Bic.

The paying-in slip bore the words BANK OF THE DEAD in twelve-point Garamond capital italics.

Whistling a long-forgotten tune, Benny Shumway dipped in his pocket, produced a genuine all-brass Zippo and thumbed the wheel. As the flame caught and blossomed, he picked up the stack of currency, plus the paying-in slip, and held the flame against the short end. The notes caught; he turned his wrist, expertly nursing the infant fire, while with his other hand he reached for what looked like a wide, flat-bottomed tourist-ware brass Benares ashtray. Just as the flames were about to lick his fingertips, he dropped the blazing money into the tray and watched as it curled into white ash.

That done, Benny Shumway wriggled into his overcoat, flipped off the lights and trotted down the stairs. He was two minutes behind schedule, but luckily the goblins hadn’t locked up yet.

At twenty to six, Paul Carpenter was standing beside the road, hating his car.

It hadn’t been his idea in the first place; but he’d been too shocked to refuse at the time, and by then it was too late. Promotion from junior clerk to clerk meant that he was entitled to a company car. Since the company in question was J. W. Wells & Co., the car wasn’t your run-of-themill Volkswagen Polo. In fact, until a few months ago, it had been a third-level sorcerer’s apprentice employed by Gebruder Faust Gmbh of Frankfurt, one of J. W. Wells’s oldest and most intransigent business rivals. It (or she) had accepted the sideways promotion with stoical good grace (after all, as Ricky Wurmtoter, the pest-control partner, had said at the time, it could have been worse; could’ve been a Ford, or even – cruelly and unusually – a Rover Metro), and up till now, Paul and Monika had got on reasonably well together.

Up till now.

He’d tried magic, of course. Where engine trouble was concerned, magic was his first resort, and also his last. Since he’d joined JWW six months ago, he’d learned quite a lot of rudimentary magic, as was essential if he was to pull his weight as an employee of the oldest and most respected firm of sorcerers and thaumaturgical consultants in the UK. He’d learned that magic is just a fancy term for the process of turning things from how they are to how they ought to be. And a Volkswagen Polo ought to govroomwhen you press the accelerator pedal.

‘Please?’ he asked nicely; but that failed too. He swore under his breath. The car radio clicked into life.

Ich kann dich horen,’ it said reproachfully. ‘Das is nicht höflich.

Paul scowled. It had been a long day; six o’clock start, driving from London to a pub car park in some godforsaken place in outer Gloucestershire to hand over a brown A4 manila envelope to (he shuddered just thinking about it) a red-eyed, rat-headed goblin wearing a Marks & Sparks suit three sizes too big for it. ‘Talk English, for crying out loud. I know you can.’

The car radio tutted at him. ‘You should make effort,’ it said. ‘Is bad enough for me being car.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Paul muttered. Monika had a lovely voice, but she did tend to be bossy. ‘Can you tell me what’s wrong with you?’

Ja, ja,is obvious. Die Zylinderkopfdichtungisundicht. Anybody should know this.’

Paul sighed. ‘The what is what?’

Zylinderkopfdichtung.’ Monika clicked her virtual tongue. ‘I do not know what it is in English. But it is very bad. I am very sick. You must call for assistance.’

‘Yes, right,’ Paul snapped. ‘And I expect you know how I’m supposed to go about finding a garage in the middle of nowhere at six o’clock on a Friday—’

Natürlich,’ Monika interrupted. ‘In my glove box is 1996 edition of AA Members’ handbook. On page 386 is list of local garages. Third from top is Gorse Hill Motors, telephone number . . .’ Paul pressed keys on his mobile. Nobody answered for a very long time. Just as he was about to ring off, a voice said, ‘What?’

Paul took a deep breath. ‘Hello,’ he said. ‘I wonder if you could help me. My car’s broken down and, um, I was hoping, can you come out and sort of fix it?’

A long silence; then the voice said: ‘Hang on, I’ll get someone.’

‘Thanks,’ Paul said. It was either a woman’s voice or a child’s; if he’d been on oath, he’d have had to say it was probably the latter. Well, he thought,family-run business in rural Gloucestershire, nothing unusual about that.

‘Well?’ said another voice.

‘Hello,’ Paul said. ‘I was wondering if—’

‘Skip all that,’ said the new voice; and this time, absolutely no doubt about it, this time it was definitely a kid; a girl, somewhere between seven and nine. ‘What’s the problem?’

‘Um,’ Paul said. ‘Well, it was making this horrible sort of clonking noise, and then it started blowing out great clouds of blue smoke, and now it won’t go at all.’

The unseen seven-year-old clicked her tongue. ‘Cylinder-head gasket,’ she said. ‘All right, we’ll come and pick it up. Where are you?’

‘Um, I’m not sure.’ Monika would know, of course; she had some kind of satellite navigation system that told her where she was to the nearest centimetre. Unfortunately he couldn’t make head nor tail of it, and he couldn’t very well say,Hold on, you’d better ask my car. He leaned in through the driver’s door and stared at the little screen where the ashtray should have been. ‘Well, if this road’s the B5632—’

‘It isn’t.’

‘Oh.’ He wasn’t sure how the kid knew that, but he wasn’t going to argue. ‘In that case, I don’t know.’

‘’S all right,’ said the kid wearily. ‘We’ve got you. Hang on, we’ll be there in twenty minutes.’

The kid had rung off. Paul shrugged and sat in the driver’s seat. It was too cold to stand about in the open.

‘You are calling the garage?’ Monika asked.

Paul nodded. He knew she could see him, though he had no idea what with. ‘They’re sending someone,’ he replied. ‘Twenty minutes.’

Sehr gut.’ She groaned softly. ‘It hurts, but I am brave. We play Hangman?’

Paul sighed wearily. ‘Oh, all right,’ he said.

For some reason, Monika loved playing Hangman, though her limited English vocabulary didn’t help; also, she got very tense when she lost. In the event, it only took eighteen minutes for the pick-up truck to arrive, but it seemed much longer.

‘Here is garage,’ Monika announced suddenly. A moment later, a pair of bright white eyes flared in the rear-view mirror. Paul got out.

‘You the breakdown?’ said a voice from the darkness, as the truck drew up beside him.

‘Yes, that’s . . .’ Paul broke off. Another one who sounded like a child. Wasn’t there some gas or something that made your voice go all high and squeaky? The truck doors opened. Two small figures climbed out and walked towards him.

The one on the left was male, very short blond hair, shirttails hanging out under a green pullover, age probably ten. On the right, a nine-year-old girl with a ponytail, wearing lilac jeans and matching trainers. The girl was carrying, apparently without effort, a toolbox that looked like it weighed more than she did.

‘What’s the problem?’ asked the girl briskly.

It took Paul a moment to answer. ‘Um, it was making this terrible clunky noise, and there was a lot of blue smoke, and now it won’t go at all.’

The girl looked up at him. She had clear blue eyes and freckles. ‘Keys?’

Paul blinked. ‘Sorry?’

‘Keys,’ she repeated irritably.

‘Oh, right. In the ignition.’

She nodded. ‘All right,’ she said. ‘Stand back.’ Paul did so, and apparently ceased to exist. The boy jumped into the driver’s seat, leant over and flipped the bonnet lock; whereupon the conversation between him and the girl became technical, and Paul tuned out.

He’d seen weirder things, true, ever since he joined JWW. He’d seen goblins, real ones with round red eyes and tusks, and found out that they owned the freehold of 70 St Mary Axe. He’d seen a human being turned into a photocopier before his very eyes, and learned that the long stapler used for tacking sheets of A3 together was in fact the firm’s senior partner, transfigured into a stapler a century ago during a particularly savage bout of office politics; in fact, he’d been the one who rescued Mr Wells senior from the curse, though quite how he’d managed that he wasn’t quite sure. He’d seen all manner of disconcerting things lately and had reached the point where he could think round them or over them, like a knight in chess. But one of the parameters that helped him cling on to the shirt-tails of his sanity was that all the weirdness happened inside the office, or else on work-related forays where he could at least prepare himself beforehand. If weirdness was going to jump out at him on all sides like this, he felt that he probably wasn’t going to be able to cope for much longer.

‘I was right,’ the girl said, with an expensive-sounding sigh. ‘Cylinder-head gasket’s blown.’ She took a step back, and surveyed the car as though it was something very sad which should have been avoided. ‘You’re looking at a strip down, cylinder-head refacing, new gasket, fan belt, refit, add your recovery cost and VAT on top, it’s going to be something around four hundred quid however you look at it. More than this old heap of junk’s worth, if you ask me.’

The car radio started talking very fast in German. The girl leaned in and switched it off, something that Paul had never been able to do, though he’d tried very hard.

‘Actually,’ he said, ‘it’s not my car. Belongs to the company.’

‘Oh, right.’ The girl shrugged. ‘Well, it’s up to you. We’ll fix it for you if you want us to, but . . .’

Naturally, Paul couldn’t explain why the car had to be fixed. ‘That’d be great,’ he said. ‘Will it, um, take long?’

The way she didn’t answer suggested that yes, it would. ‘Hop in the back,’ the girl said, pointing towards the pickup. ‘We’ll give you a lift as far as the garage.’

Luckily it wasn’t far, though such things are relative when you’re sharing the back of an open truck with chains, coils of rope and a soggy tarpaulin. All the way, Paul tried to assure himself that once they reached the garage it’d be all right, there’d be grown-ups there who’d do the actual engineering, and possibly even offer a rational explanation. He tried not to think about the fact that his car was apparently sentient, and that the girl hadn’t mentioned anything about using anaesthetics while she was performing surgery. He’d never heard a Volkswagen scream, and he was in no hurry to find out what it sounded like.

The garage looked ordinary enough, until the wide galvanised-iron doors opened and revealed three more under-twelves, all dressed in oily overalls. There was a grubby-looking teddy bear on the office desk, and a Barbie calendar on the wall instead of the usual Pirelli. Apart from that, it could’ve been any small country garage anywhere.

A carrot-topped six-year-old with her hair in bunches unhitched Monika from the truck and pushed her into the workshop. Treading warily round the fact that it was way past her bedtime, Paul asked her if there was any chance of doing the repairs tonight, since he had an important meeting first thing in the morning.

She looked at him; and Paul noticed with alarm a look in her eyes that reminded him of goblins, or rather of one particular goblin, who happened to be the mother of one of the firm’s partners and who also, for reasons best known to herself, fancied him rotten. ‘Maybe,’ the child said, and grinned, making Paul wish he hadn’t asked. ‘I s’pose we could do you the express service,’ she went on, and winked broadly. ‘But you’ll have to promise not to tell.’

‘Fine,’ Paul heard himself say. ‘I’d really appreciate it, because—’

The kid leered at him. ‘Right,’ she said. ‘Push off. You can wait outside, I’ll call you when we’re done.’

Clearly, they didn’t want him to see, which was fine by him. Ever since he’d had the use of a car who talked back when he spoke to it, he’d tended to come over faint at the sight of oil. It was cold out on the forecourt, but the rain was only a light drizzle. He found a relatively sheltered spot behind a pile of dead tyres, and huddled. In the distance somewhere, an owl hooted.

‘Hey, you.’ The doors slid back, and yellow light engulfed him. He looked up, startled. He didn’t know how long he’d been standing there, but he was sure they couldn’t have finished already. ‘All done,’ the ginger-haired girl said, grinning at him round the edge of the door. ‘You can come in now.’

A kid he hadn’t seen before (small, fair-haired, glasses) turned the key and started the engine. Monika purred; no rattle, no smoke. ‘That’s great,’ Paul said awkwardly. From the expressions on the children’s faces he had the idea that some kind of miracle had been achieved while he’d been standing outside. He wished he knew enough about cars to appreciate it properly. ‘Um, how much do I owe you?’

Carrot-top gave him a rather grubby invoice. At least they had handwriting like proper children, and they spelt cylinder with two 1’s. Whatever the express service entailed, it came expensive, and Paul didn’t relish the thought of what Mr Shumway was going to say about it in the morning.

‘Cash,’ Carrot-top added.

‘Oh.’ Paul looked down at her, worried. ‘I’m very sorry,’ he said, ‘I haven’t got that sort of money on me.’ He took out his wallet, just in case the Folding Money Fairy had left him a four-figure surprise. She hadn’t. ‘I can do plastic,’ he said. ‘Or,’ he remembered, ‘a company cheque.’ Mr Shumway had let him loose with the firm’s chequebook, on the strict understanding that any misuse thereof would be punished by unspeakable atrocities. ‘Otherwise, I don’t—’

‘Cash,’ the child repeated; and then she caught sight of the JWW chequebook, lying inside Paul’s open wallet. BANK OF THE DEAD, unmissable on the cover. She looked like she had the knack of reading upside down. ‘Or a cheque’ll do fine,’ she said pleasantly.

‘Um,’ Paul replied. It had just occurred to him that, according to Mr Shumway, the term ‘misuse’ specifically included giving JWW cheques to anybody outside The Business. Given who JWW banked with, he could see Mr Shumway’s point. ‘Actually,’ he said, ‘maybe that wouldn’t be such a good idea. If someone could give me a lift to the nearest cashpoint—’

‘A cheque,’ the girl repeated firmly, ‘will do just fine. We’ve got a stamp,’ she added, making it sound like a threat.

So Paul wrote her a cheque. The girl waved away the card, then took the cheque in her left hand, produced a cigarette lighter and—

‘And then,’ Paul said, ‘you’ll never guess what she did.’

Sophie yawned. ‘Set light to it,’ she said, pouring water from the kettle into her hot water bottle.

Paul looked at her. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘How did you—?’

Sophie had joined JWW on the same day as Paul; they’d found out the great secret together, at roughly the same time that they’d discovered that they were, somewhat improbably, in love. But whereas there were still mornings when Paul woke up and assumed his recent memories were the shrapnel from a particularly bizarre dream, Sophie seemed to have adapted remarkably well to the ambient weirdness. She tightened the hottie-bottle stopper and yawned again. ‘Bank of The Dead,’ she said. ‘You don’t know, right?’

Paul nodded.

‘It’s a Chinese thing originally,’ she said. ‘They believe it’s your duty to provide for your ancestors in the next world by sending them money; you buy Bank of The Dead banknotes with real money, and then you burn them, which credits their account.’

Paul frowned. ‘Yes, but surely that’s just a—’

‘Tax fiddle, yes,’ Sophie said, her hand in front of her mouth. ‘Other companies bank offshore, but JWW has to go one better.’ She opened the kitchen door. ‘You think that’s strange, you wait till you see what happens when you use a Bank of The Dead cashpoint card in an ordinary machine. Well, I’m going to bed. G’night.’

‘’Night, then,’ Paul said. He felt faintly disappointed; not that it was the most grippingly fascinating story ever or anything like that, but . . . Still; on balance, he approved of the way that Sophie could shrug off the bizarre and the disturbing, the way he still couldn’t. A sense of perspective, he supposed you’d call it, a vitally important part of being grown-up and all that stuff he’d never quite been able to master. But so long as she had one, he didn’t have to. That’s partnership for you, the Jack Sprat equilibrium. She had her own special strengths, and he—

Paul still couldn’t see what the hell Sophie saw in him.

He caught sight of his reflection in the kitchen window, and found no answers there; tall, thin, unfinished-looking young Englishmen aren’t hard to find, the supply tends to exceed demand, whereas beautiful, intelligent, courageous, resourceful, small thin girls with enormous eyes are a scarce commodity, always highly sought after, even if they do have an unfortunate manner which you can get used to very quickly . . .

Yes, he thought, ordering the kettle to boil,but. In the time they’d been together, she’d started to change. It was as though Life was an exam the term after next, and she’d already started revising, and he hadn’t. Where he still drifted from day to day, trying to keep out of the way of the more alarming variants of weirdness and counting himself lucky every time he got home in the same shape he’d left in, she— She was gettingseriousabout things, in an admirable but not entirely comfortable way. At work, she tried hard; at home, she cared about stuff like spin-dryers and radiators and putting money aside for the electricity bill; and yes, someone had to do all that kind of thing and for sure he wasn’t capable of it, but even so. It couldn’t be too long, could it, before she got sick to death of the sight of him, and—

Frowning, Paul ordered the boiling water into his teacup, then remembered that he’d forgotten the tea bag. He had, of course, assumed that once he’d won the girl of his dreams, that would be that; the story would be over, and somehow complete. Exam thinking again; once he’d passed, he’d get his little bit of paper with the curly writing and his name and grade, and then he’d have his Maths GCSE for ever and ever. Nobody could take it away from him, and he wouldn’t ever have to do it again. But there was rather more to being in love. You had to stick at it, or you could lose everything, just like that. Not fair, growled Paul’s inner child. Not fair at all.

Somehow, tea seemed to have lost its relevance; he tipped the hot water down the sink, dried the cup and put it away. (He now lived in an environment where cups didn’t live on the draining board any more; when had that happened, and how?) The kitchen clock told him it was time to go to bed, since he had to be up bright and early in the morning for the Important Meeting. Oh well.

Perched on the edge of his side of the bed (asleep, Sophie displayed territorial ambitions unparalleled since the collapse of the Mongol empire) Paul fell into troubled sleep, the sort in which the dreams are all the more alarming because you’re pretty sure you’re still awake. He dreamed that he was in something like a hospital ward, except that there were no nurses or drips or legs in plaster; a dormitory of some kind, except that all the people lying asleep in the beds – hundreds of them, maybe even thousands – were grown-ups. Sophie was there, lying on her side, dead to the world. He knew that something was wrong, but there was nobody to ask; and then countess Judy di Castel’Bianco, the Entertainment Sector partner at JWW, was standing next to him, with a clipboard in one hand, smiling.

‘It’s all right,’ she told him kindly. (In real life, he hadn’t spoken to her since his interview.) ‘They can’t feel anything, it doesn’t hurt. And it’s necessary,’ she added, with possibly a hint of remorse. ‘And be realistic; it wouldn’t have lasted anyway, you’re far too immature. This way, you’re spared the pain. It’s for the best, you’ll see that in the end.’

That made sense, apparently; so did the fact that the ward (it was definitely a hospital now) was suddenly full of children, like the ones at the garage, and, wearing white coats, they were walking up and down between the beds. Some of them wheeled trolleys laden with food and drink: cheese omelettes, strong-smelling coffee. Others were inspecting the sleepers – thumbing back eyelids, forcing lips apart with little wooden spatulas, checking pulses and drawing samples of blood. From time to time they found one who wasn’t working any more; they took them away on trolleys and brought replacements.

When they came for Sophie (‘Over here,’ Judy di Castel’Bianco called out. ‘Hurry, she’s been dead for hours’), he woke up.

The notice hanging from Ricky Wurmtoter’s doorhandle was, as usual, both alarming and profoundly unhelpful. It read BEWARE OF THE PREDATORS.

Paul had regarded Ricky Wurmtoter, the partner specialising in pest control, with suspicious caution ever since he’d taken Paul out to lunch on the day he’d joined the firm. Probably Mr Wurmtoter was just being nice; he was the youngest and most affable of the partners, looked and dressed like a movie star trying to be inconspicuous, spoke with a faint German accent and owned (among other things) a flying white horse that could get from London to north of Manchester in the time it took to boil an egg. His work mostly consisted of slaying dragons (who, being attracted to stored accumulations of wealth, tended to be a serious nuisance to museums, art galleries and banks), vampires, werewolves, manticores and other monstrous creatures that Paul had, until recently, fondly believed didn’t exist; accordingly he was out of the office a lot of the time, and Paul hadn’t had much to do with him since that initial lunch.

Paul hadn’t been inside Mr Wurmtoter’s office before, and he was pleasantly surprised at how normal it was, at least by JWW standards. Apart from a couple of stuffed and mounted heads on the wall that would lead to a mass pulping and rewriting of textbooks if they ever fell into the hands of the scientific community, and a huge walk-in safe in one corner, there were just a plain desk, three chairs and an almost empty bookshelf.

‘Paul,’ Mr Wurmtoter said, turning round and smiling pleasantly. ‘Thanks for joining us. You know Benny Shumway, I’m sure.’

Paul knew Benny Shumway, no doubt about it. Instead of snarling at him, however, the cashier raised his left hand and waggled his fingers. Paul sat down next to him and tried to look keen and eager.


  • "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
480 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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