May Contain Traces of Magic


By Tom Holt

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There are all kinds of products. The good ones. The bad ones. The ones that stay in the garage mouldering for years until your garden gnome makes a home out of them. Most are harmless if handled properly, even if they do contain traces of peanuts. But some are not. Not the ones that contain traces of magic.

Chris Popham wasn’t paying enough attention when he talked to his SatNav. Sure, she gave him directions, never backtalked him, and always led him to his next spot on the map with perfect accuracy. She was the best thing in his life. So was it really his fault that he didn’t start paying attention when she talked to him? In his defence, that was her job. But when ‘Take the next right’ turned into ‘Excuse me,’ that was when the real trouble started.
Because sometimes a SatNav isn’t a SatNav. Sometimes it’s an imprisoned soul trapped inside a metal box that will do anything it can to get free. And some products you just can’t return.


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
May Contain Traces of Magic
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

May Contain Traces of Magic
Hachette Digital

Published by Hachette Digital 2009
Copyright © 2009 by The One Reluctant Lemming Co. Ltd
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All rights reserved.
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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.
A CIP catalogue record for this book
is available from the British Library.
eISBN : 978 0 7481 1382 8
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To my father; who carried the bag with humour.
And to all salesmen everywhere.

He was losing her, he could tell. The polite smile was still there, but the eyes were glazing over, the mind was drifting away. Right, he thought.
‘Or there’s the new BB27Ks,’ he said, increasing the volume just a trifle. ‘I think they’d do really well for you. Ever since we brought them out, it’s been phenomenal.’
He’d got her back, just for a moment. ‘I read about them,’ she said; just enough enthusiasm to dirty a microscope slide, but that was something like a ninety per cent improvement. ‘How are they going?’
‘Brilliant,’ he said, ‘absolutely brilliant. Doing very nicely. Everywhere I go, people keep telling me they’re just flying off the shelves.’
Immediately, he knew he’d said the wrong thing; her mouth tightened, her eyes narrowed a little. No idea why. ‘In fact, we’re doing a special . . .’ he started to say, but a flicker of movement behind her head snagged his attention and he dried up. On the top row of the shelf unit facing him, a cardboard box had just sprouted wings.
Sod it, he thought. The NM66.
‘Um,’ he said, as the box stretched, preened its light grey feathers and made a soft cheeping noise. The shopkeeper looked round, swore and grabbed at it, but it was too late. The box spread its wings, hopped off the shelf and glided lazily, just out of reach of the shopkeeper’s flailing hands, over their heads, out through the open door into the street.
She looked at him.
‘We’re working on that,’ he said sheepishly. ‘Bit of a snarl-up with quality control, but they promise me the next batch . . .’
‘Fifteen of them,’ she said bitterly. ‘In just one week.’
‘It’s the mating season,’ he mumbled. ‘But they’ve completely redesigned the DNA sequence, and that’ll sort it, no problem. Meanwhile, if you’ll just do us a returns note for the, um, escaped stock, we’ll get that straightened out for you, and . . .’
He ran out of words. The expression on her face was quite clear: forget it, don’t bother, save your breath. But that wasn’t his way. He sucked in a little air, and said brightly, ‘So, shall I put you down for three dozen of the BB27K, for starters? We’re offering special display materials, dumpbins, special promotional . . .’
‘No, thanks,’ she said.
Oh, he thought. Right, fine. ‘Well, I guess that’s about it for today, then. Thanks ever so much for seeing me, and I’ll be back again first week in June. Meanwhile, if there’s anything I can help you with . . .’
It was like pouring water into sand. He was used to it, but that didn’t make it fun. And it’d be nice, just once, if he got a chance to end a sentence with something other than three dots. He smiled, closed the lid of his briefcase, thanked her once again for her time and left the shop.
It was raining outside, needless to say, as though tears for the miserable fate of all salesmen everywhere were rolling down heaven’s face. One of these days, he thought, I’ll get a proper job, in an office, and I won’t have to do this any more. One of these days.
He looked up, and saw the stray NM66 perched on top of a nearby traffic light. Stupid bloody things, he thought as the box, now distinctly damp, cooed mildly at him; not enough sense to stay out of the rain, it’ll get all soggy and fall to bits if it’s not careful.
He walked back to his car, which winked its indicators at him as he thumbed the plastic key thing. At least someone’s pleased to see me, he thought.
Before he drove off, he filled in the order form. That didn’t take long. No BB27Ks, no GP19s, he’d been stone-cold certain he’d be able to shift a couple of outers of YJ42s but no dice. Just a couple of trays of AA1s and the inevitable repeat order for DW6 . . .
That made him frown, as it always did. DW6: one of the firm’s biggest sellers, but in seven years he’d yet to meet anybody who knew what the stupid stuff was actually for. It was, by any criteria, the weirdest, most totally improbable concept he’d come across (and in this business, that was saying a lot). None of the reps knew what it was supposed to do, the buyers hadn’t got a clue, the shop managers and sales assistants didn’t know; but the customers bought it, by the bucketful, by the skipload, so—
Never mind, he told himself firmly as he switched on the SatNav and waited for it to warm up. A mystery it might be, but at least he could shift it; three hearty cheers for small mercies. There were some months (and this might well prove to be one of them, the way things were going) when the only thing that stood between him and an excitingly challenging change in career direction was DW6.
Even so.
SatNav flickered into brightly backlit life, and he touched the nail of his index finger to the screen. The colours swirled, and it said—
(It said; she said -)
- SatNav said, ‘Your route is being calculated; please wait,’ and for a moment he forgot about snotty shop managers and flying cardboard boxes and his monthly target and perversely inexplicable megaselling DW6, because there was something about its voice, her voice, that was so wonderfully soothing and reassuring; like she understood him, like she cared—
He frowned. They’d warned him about that, of course. He glanced at the little screen, as the picture swung wildly through the x axis and settled itself. Straight on out of town until he hit the main A666, then take the second exit. Fine.
Not much traffic at this time of day. He’d warned them about the NM66, of course, told them till he was blue in the face and would they listen? Fat chance. He’d told them that it was just a matter of time before an escaped pair started breeding, and then the brown stuff ’d hit the swiftly whirring blades all right: tabloid headlines, billion-dollar lawsuits, the boingboing noise of rolling heads in the deep-pile-carpeted corridors of corporate power. He sighed. They lived in a world of their own in Kettering.
He turned the radio on, but it was some phone-in, so he fished about in the glove compartment for a CD. Now there (he thought, as he scrabbled one-handed through the plastic cases) was another bloody mystery, because a third of the stuff in there was garbage he’d never have bought in a million years, a third he couldn’t even recognise, and of the remaining third that he was prepared to acknowledge as his own, the one thing he actually wanted to find was always missing. White Stripes; no, not today. Very Best of James Blunt - contradiction in terms. He looked up just in time to avoid smashing into the back of a lorry, and grabbed something at random.
It turned out to be a home-made job, no label or writing on it, so presumably one of Karen’s compilation CDs - no idea how they came to end up in his glove compartment; another mystery. He stuck it in anyway, and it turned out not to be too bad after all, though of course he had to keep the volume right down so he could hear SatNav—
‘After three hundred yards,’ SatNav said, ‘turn left.’
He realised he was smiling, and frowned instead. So what, she had, it had a nice voice: bright, warm, friendly, ever so slightly sexy but—All right, so what? Obviously they’d chosen a voice that was carefully designed to appeal to the tired, stressed-out male driver, and they were good at their jobs, and they’d succeeded. There was absolutely nothing wrong with that, nothing odd or sinister or strange about it, and if he’d rather listen to her - it - than to the Proclaimers or the miserable sods on the radio, that was perfectly all right, nothing whatsoever to worry about. Even so, he turned the CD player up just a little bit, and self-consciously tapped out the beat on the steering wheel with his fingers.
I worry too much, he thought; and when there’s too much or too little to worry about, I worry about worrying. Maybe I should be worried about that, too. Or maybe I should just get a bloody grip, and concentrate on getting through the next call without screwing up too monumentally badly.
‘At the next junction,’ SatNav said, ‘turn left.’
‘What? Oh, yes,’ he muttered, and dabbed at the indicator stalk. ‘Thanks.’
‘You’re welcome.’
Now then, he thought. Next call was Stetchkin & Sons: old-established family firm, conservative, the archetypal no-call-for-that-round-here outfit, which meant he was going to have to come up with something pretty stunningly amazing if he was going to offload any BB27Ks on them. He rehearsed the standard pitch in his mind. No chance. Come on, he told himself reproachfully, you’re a salesman, you can do this—
‘I can,’ he said aloud, like they’d told him to on his Innovation & Assertiveness Awareness Day (complete waste of time, except for the spring rolls at lunchtime). ‘I can. There’s no such word as can’t.’
It sounded even sillier than usual, and he grinned. Yes, he thought, but just for the hell of it, like it’s some kind of bet I’m having with myself; if only to see the look on old Mr Stetchkin’s face when he realises he’s just placed an order for three dozen of something he didn’t know he wanted. I can do this—
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Can’t I, SatNav?’
‘Of course you can.’
He frowned, changed down to overtake a cyclist, and said, ‘Yes, well, it’s easy for you to say. You’ve never met old Mr Stetchkin.’
‘Tell me about him.’
He grinned, and turned off the CD player. ‘Oh God, where do I begin? Right, then, for a start he’s seventy if he’s a day, bald with little bits of white fluff over his ears like cotton wool, stupid little tufty white beard—’
‘He sounds rather sweet, actually.’
Bitter laugh. ‘I don’t think so,’ he said. ‘He’s one of those miserable, nit-picking types, never satisfied, nothing’s ever right, won’t ever listen to what you’ve got to say, reckons he knows it all, you really wouldn’t—’
‘After three hundred yards,’ SatNav interrupted, ‘turn right. And perhaps,’ she went on, ‘if he’s been in the business for a long time and he’s still going, maybe he does know it all. Or at least quite a lot of it.’
He was going to laugh derisively, but he didn’t. ‘It’s a good business, Stetchkins,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘They’ve always done well, even in the recession. There’s not many that can say that.’
‘Now turn right,’ SatNav said. ‘So perhaps Mr Stetchkin’s got good reason to think he knows it all.’
‘I’d have thought someone like that would be quite proud of his experience.’
He frowned. ‘Go on.’
‘Oh, I was just thinking, after all those years in the trade, he must have heard every pitch there is, over and over again, till he’s sick of hearing them all. People trying really hard to sell him things, I mean.’
‘I suppose so,’ he said. ‘But that’s not helping me, is it?’
‘After six hundred yards, take the second exit. If I was Mr Stetchkin,’ SatNav said, ‘I wouldn’t want some young rep coming into my shop and trying to shove some new product up my nose, telling me how wonderful it is. No, if there’s a new line I might be interested in, I’d want to look at it carefully, see if it’s any good and make my own decision. Don’t you think?’
‘Fine,’ he replied huffily. ‘That’s me out of a job, then.’
‘Not at all. Your job is to bring the merchandise to the customers’ attention.’
‘That’s one way of looking at it,’ he said sarcastically. ‘Only I wouldn’t last very long if all I . . .’
‘Take the second exit.’
‘What? Oh, shit, right.’
‘Personally,’ SatNav went on, ‘if it was me, I’d start off just taking down the reorders, let him do all the talking to begin with, and then I’d say something like—’
‘I’m thinking, please wait. Something like, “I don’t know if you’ve got a moment, Mr Stetchkin, but I’d quite like your opinion of this new line we’re bringing out”; and then you hand it to him and take a step back, and don’t say anything until he’s finished looking at it—’
‘That’s not bad,’ Mr Stetchkin said.
Oink, he thought. ‘You think it’s OK?’ he said.
Mr Stetchkin nodded. ‘It’s quite good,’ he said. ‘Neat. Well thought out. Good value for money.’
He frowned, like she’d told him to, and tried to sound slightly worried. ‘You don’t think the packaging’s a bit, well, loud—?’
Mr Stetchkin shook his head. ‘No, not really. Nice bright colours, catches the eye.’
‘But isn’t it a bit on the dear side? For what it is, I mean.’
Mr Stetchkin thought about that for a moment. ‘I don’t think so,’ he said. ‘Customers know they get what they pay for. If it was any cheaper, it’d send the wrong message. You wouldn’t expect to get anything like this worth having for nine ninety-nine.’
‘That’s true,’ he said, as though reluctantly conceding the point. ‘And you think the way it folds up at the back is all right? I was a little concerned people might think it’s a bit, well, fiddly.’
Mr Stetchkin gave him a patronising smile. ‘Hardly,’ he said. ‘Look, I can do it with one hand, see?’ And he folded it up easily, as though he’d been practising for a week. ‘No, I have to say, I really like this - What did you say the code was?’
He made a show of looking at his book. ‘BB27K,’ he said.
‘Yes, thank you.’ Mr Stetchkin handed him back the sample, and nodded. ‘I’ll take ten dozen.’
‘I think we may be able to - Just let me check.’ He looked back at the book and saw that it was upside down. Luckily, Mr Stetchkin hadn’t noticed. ‘Yes, we can let you have ten dozen, just about. Usual rate?’
Mr Stetchkin nodded again, and for a moment the shop seemed to flicker, because Mr Stetchkin always screwed you to the floor over discounts. ‘Now then,’ Mr Stetchkin went on, ‘I’d like another six dozen of the DW6, and this time, tell them I don’t want to find any of them with the seals broken, I think I may have mentioned this before—’
‘It was amazing,’ he said. ‘Ten dozen. He took ten dozen, and—’
‘At the end of the road, turn left.’
‘Yes, I know, I’ve been here before. Now all I’ve got to do is shift three dozen more and I’ve made my target, and I’m pretty sure I can get rid of two dozen on the Valmet brothers, which just leaves one, and I’m home free.’
‘That’s marvellous. I knew you could do it.’
He was grinning again. But, he thought, why the hell not? Nobody else would’ve said that to him. ‘I reckon we’ve done a good day’s work today,’ he said. ‘You and me.’
No reply; but that was fair enough, it was a straight stretch of road. He sat back in his seat and tapped the wheel a few times, beating out the rhythm from one of the tracks he’d played earlier; catchy tune, he wondered who it was by.
‘Excuse me.’
‘Only,’ she said, ‘I was wondering.’
‘This BB—’
‘That’s it, yes. Only . . .’ Brief hesitation, like she was about to take a slight liberty. ‘What is it? I mean, what does it actually do?’
He smiled. ‘It’s the latest thing,’ he said. ‘Kettering’s mad about it, really pushing it. Hence the bloody enormous target.’
‘Yes, but—’
His smile widened. ‘It’s a portable folding parking space,’ he said. ‘It comes in a little plastic wallet, and you take it out and unfold it and lay it down on the road, and it expands into a space big enough to take anything up to a small minibus. When you’re ready to leave, you just pick it up and put it away and off you go. Even works on double yellows. I’m going to see if I can nick one for myself, it’ll make my life so much—’
‘That’s a really good idea,’ she said.
‘Invented by Professor Cornelius Van Spee of Leiden,’ he recited, ‘a by-product of research into—’
‘Wasn’t he the one who went mad and tried to blow up the planet?’
He shrugged. ‘Search me,’ he replied. ‘I just sell them. Or try to,’ he added. ‘And, thanks to you . . .’
‘Not at all,’ she said. ‘You were the one who made the sale. I just—’
‘Should I be turning right here?’
‘What? Oh, yes, sorry.’
‘No problem,’ he said, turning the wheel. ‘And then it’s right at the crossroads, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. I mean, at the end of the road, turn right. Sorry.’
‘That’s OK.’ He slid the gear lever into fourth. ‘What were you telling me just now about Professor Van Spee?’
‘Well,’ SatNav replied, ‘if he’s the one I’m thinking of, he tried to create a pocket universe. There was a lot of trouble about it, at the time.’
He frowned. ‘That’s no big deal,’ he said. ‘I mean, we do those: the JH88C. Get away from it all in a world of your own for only two-nine-nine ninety-nine. We sell a lot of them.’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘But this one actually worked.
‘Ah.’ He thought for a moment, then said, ‘Hang on, though. The JH88C works. Any rate, I’ve never had any sent back, so they must be all right.’
Slight pause; then she said, ‘The JH88C creates an interdimensional bubble capable of supporting one adult human for up to forty-eight hours at a time, while the inbuilt matter/energy transfiguration unit allows limited holographic imaging for a strictly limited range of pre-programmed fantasy activities. Van Spee’s version was permanent, and you could do anything you liked in there.’
‘Really?’ He raised his eyebrows. ‘Cool.’
‘Cool,’ she agreed, ‘except that it did all sorts of horrible things to the real world. But he didn’t care about that. Not a nice man.’
‘Obviously.’ He thought for a moment, then said, ‘You know a lot about it—’
‘For a SatNav, you mean?’ She didn’t say it nastily or anything, but he got the message. ‘I don’t just do quickest-way-from-A-to-B, you know.’
‘That’s for sure,’ he said. ‘You know, I went to this launch meeting about the JH88C, and they told us all about it and the points we should be stressing to customers and all that, but they didn’t say anything about interdimensional bubbles or blowing up planets.’
‘Didn’t want to overload you with stuff you didn’t need to know, presumably.’
‘I guess so.’ Pause; thought. ‘But you know—’
‘After six hundred yards, take the first exit.’
So he did; and a sociopath in a Daf sixteen-wheeler tried to carve him up on the inside, which provoked him into the use of intemperate language, and after that he’d forgotten what they’d been talking about; and soon afterwards they turned into Frobisher Way, and she said, ‘You have now arrived at your destination,’ and he parked the car and went in to the office.
‘Oh, it’s you,’ said Julie on reception. ‘You’re late.’
‘Am I?’
She nodded. ‘He’s waiting for you,’ she said. ‘In the small interview room.’
‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Lucky me.’
As he trudged slowly through the industrial Axminster, he ran through a short list of possibilities. Get rid of the most unlikely ones first: he’s pleased with me, he wants to give me a pay rise, he wants to promote me. Yes indeed; and the pig now boarding at gate number six is the 17:09 scheduled flight to Mogadishu. Rather more probable: he’s pissed off at me, he’s really pissed off at me, he’s really seriously pissed off at me—
He knocked on the door, waited for the familiar grunt, and went in. At the far end of the room, his huge pink face reflected in the highly polished table top, sat Mr Burnoz, area manager; not a pleasant sight, but not so bad if you’re expecting it. Opposite him was some scraggy kid in glasses.
‘You wanted to see me, Mr—’
‘Come in, sit down.’ Mr Burnoz turned his head and smiled at the scraggy kid. Female, he noted, more than a passing resemblance to a weasel. ‘Angela, I’d like you to meet Chris Popham, one of our sales reps. Chris, this is Angela -’ some surname he didn’t catch ‘- who’s joining us for a month as part of her degree course.’ Burnoz smiled hugely, as if he was trying to catch the sun in his teeth. ‘Angela’s taking advantage of our sponsored graduate-intake programme. Ultimately we’re hoping she’ll be joining us at Kettering, meanwhile we’re giving her this opportunity to get some front-line hands-on experience in basic marketing.’
A chill sensation, like a column of frozen ants climbing up his leg. ‘That’s great,’ Chris said through a fixed smile. ‘How do I—?’


On Sale
Jun 16, 2010
Page Count
352 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.

Learn more about this author