Open Sesame


By Tom Holt

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There was something wrong! Just as the boiling water was about to be poured on his head and the man with the red book appeared and his life flashed before his eyes, Akram the Terrible, the most feared thief in Baghdad, knew this had happened before. Many times. And he was damned if he was going to let it happen again. Just because he was a character in a story didn’t mean that it always had to end this way.

Meanwhile, back in Southampton, it’s a bit of a shock for Michelle when she puts on her Aunt Fatima’s ring and the computer and the telephone start to bitch at her for past misdemeanors. But that’s nothing compared to the story that her kitchen appliances have to tell her.


Now then, where to begin? The end would be the most logical place.
As soon as the boiling water hit him, Akram the Terrible knew what was happening. He tried to draw in enough air to scream; but inside an industry standard medium-sized palm-oil jar, air is somewhat at a premium, and besides, what was the point? By the time he got as far as eeeeee, he knew perfectly well, he’d be dead. Accordingly, being of a sanguine and stoical disposition, he settled himself as comfortably as he could to wait for the beginning of the last great adventure.
(All this, of course, took place in a fraction of a second so infinitesimally small that all the timepieces in Switzerland couldn’t measure it. But it was all the time Akram had left, and he’d always been a frugal man, taking pride in getting full value out of everything.)
Either it was his imagination, or there was someone inside the jar with him. Since the jar was still filling up with boiling water and there wasn’t enough space for a decent half-lungful of air, it stood to reason that the smiling, lounge-suited character hovering in front of his eyes holding a microphone and a big red book was probably an hallucination. Or perhaps an angel, or some other form of in-flight entertainment. Be that as it may; whoever the man with the book was, he came closer, still smiling.
Yes, thought Akram impatiently, I know all that. Get on with it, or I’ll be dead and never know what the hell it is you want to tell me. Which presumably is important, or you wouldn’t be going to all this trouble.
- Flashing in front of his eyes, just on the point of death. Well of course, he’d heard about it happening - how the blazes anybody knew was quite another matter, but apparently they’d been perfectly correct. Now Akram had his faults, quite a few of them, enough to fill three rooms in the records department down at Watch Headquarters; but false modesty had never been one of them. If this was a review of his life, it’d be well worth seeing. He settled back to enjoy himself.
Born the fatherless son of a whore in the filthiest slums of Baghdad, you embark on your life of blood and crime when, at age four and a half, you batter a blind old beggar to death for the sake of a few worthless copper coins. Now that was forty-one years ago, but the beggar, the first man you ever killed, has never forgotten you, and we’ve managed to track him down so he can be with you tonight. All the way from the Nethermost Pit of Hell, your first ever victim - Old Blind Rashid!
In the middle air, an unseen audience clapped and cheered as a wizened, crooked figure wobbled unsteadily through the side of the jar.
‘Bless my soul!’ Akram exclaimed, delighted. ‘It is you, isn’t it? Well I never!’
The old cripple hobbled up and stood beside the man with the book, who was asking him what it felt like to be murdered by a boy who’d one day go on to be the most hated and feared assassin in all Persia. And Old Blind Rashid was saying, Well, Michael, even then, you know, he showed a lot of promise, we knew he was destined for great things, and I’d just like to say how pleased and proud I am that he chose me, an old penniless beggar, to be his very first victim. Akram grinned. He was enjoying this.
It really was nice, though, to see them again after all this time: Sadiq, who’d led the first ever gang he belonged to, who he killed when he was only thirteen; Hakim, the old fence from the bazaar who’d done so much to help him in the early days until Akram had shopped him to the Wazir for the reward money: Crazy Ali, who he’d supplanted as leader of the dreaded Forty Thieves gang; Asaf, who’d taught him the secret of the magic cave, moments before his untimely death - when he’d shouted ‘Open sesame!’ from behind the curtain, it nearly brought tears to Akram’s eyes. And of course Yasmin, the sloe-eyed houri who’d told him where the accursed Ali Baba had run off to with all the loot, and worked out the cunning plan whereby they were smuggled into Baba’s fortified mansion in empty palm-oil jars—
But of course, went on the man with the book, this time the joke was on you, because of course Yasmin double-crossed you, and in about one micronanosecond, Akram the Terrible, that will have been your life !
Lights. Fanfare. Everyone comes forward, crowding round him and grinning self-consciously as the man hands him the book—
‘Hang on,’ said Akram.
The man looked at him strangely. I’m very sorry, he said, but that’s your lot. And, as we say in the business, you can’t have your chips and eat them. Akram the—
‘No,’ Akram interrupted, pushing the book aside. ‘Something’s wrong here.’
The man looked worried. I don’t think so.
Akram shook his head; difficult, given the space problem referred to above, but somehow he managed it. ‘I’ve got it,’ he said. ‘Two-Faced Zulfiqar; you know, the psychotic serial murderer who taught me all I know about advanced throttling techniques? He should be here.’
He should?
Akram nodded. ‘Too right. At least, he was here the last time.’
Akram stopped, and listened to what he’d just said.
‘The last time,’ he repeated.
Suddenly the vision faded - theatre, guests, curtains, spotlight, enormous back-projected picture of himself splashed all over one wall - leaving only the man and the red book. He looked ill.
Don’t be silly, he said. You only die once, how can there have been a last time? Now, I don’t want to rush you, but
It wasn’t just the twelve gallons of boiling water cascading down onto his upturned face that was making Akram sweat. In fact, he’d forgotten all about that. He’d forgotten, because he’d remembered something else.
‘I’ve done all this before,’ he said.
‘Dying,’ Akram went on. ‘Hundreds of times. Thousands, even. Dear God, I can remember them all. Every single one.’
Oh shit.
‘Here,’ yelled Akram, a billionth of a billionth of a second before the agonising shock stopped his heart and he died, ‘what the hell’s going on around here?’
‘Now then,’ said the dentist. ‘This won’t hurt a bit.’
Liar, Michelle thought. Men were deceivers ever. But, since she was lying flat on her back with a light blazing into her eyes and half her face feeling as if it had been blown up with a bicycle pump, there wasn’t a great deal she could do about it. The drill whined and began to rattle her bones.
‘Nearly done,’ said the dentist, smiling. ‘Have a rinse away.’
Oh good, said Michelle to herself, time for the yummy pink water. If I ask him nicely, maybe he’ll give me the recipe. She glugged and spat.
‘Just a bit more,’ the dentist continued, easing her gently backwards. ‘You’re being terribly brave.’
No I’m not, you fraud, and you know it as well as I do. But he had rather a nice smile. The drill screamed.
‘There we are,’ the dentist said. ‘All done and dusted. Now you just lie back and think beautiful thoughts while I shove off and mix the gamshack. Won’t be two ticks.’
Dentists and hairdressers, Michelle thought bitterly, ought to have their tongues cut out. It’d only be fair, since they’re licensed to make their living cutting bits off you. I bet you don’t get surgeons yammering away ten to the dozen; it’s ‘Scalpel’ and ‘Forceps’ and, if you’re unlucky, ‘Oh balls, there’s a bit left over, open her up again.’ They don’t lean over you while you’re all open and ask you what you think of the latest Carla Lane sitcom.
‘Right,’ said the dentist, returning. ‘Open wide, like you’re trying to swallow a bus, while I pop in the little sucky gadget. There we go. Hey, man, fill that thing!’
Which he proceeded to do, very neatly and quickly. He had a long face, pointed nose and chin, and bright, sad eyes. He was lost somewhere between thirty and fifty, and he never seemed to blink.
‘Caramba!’ he exclaimed. ‘That ought to do it, more or less. People tell me I ought to sign my work in case of forgery, but I’m far too self-effacing. Up you come.’
Michelle felt the back of the chair pressing against her shoulders, and the ceiling became the wall. ‘Thag you bery muj,’ she mumbled.
‘You may get a little discomfort for an hour or so after the jab wears off,’ the dentist was saying. ‘That’s just the nerves having tantrums and telling you how cruel I’ve been. If it goes on any longer than that, just yell and we’ll give them a talking to. Okay?’
Michelle nodded, half smiled and made for the door. As she opened it, the dentist was busy with his instruments, dunking them in the steriliser or whatever dentists do. She made a goodbye noise and retreated.
One dismal job after another; what a lovely way to spend her day off. It was just on eleven, and at a quarter past one she was due at the nursing home, to pick up Aunt Fatty’s things. By then, she hoped, she’d have got over the anaesthetic, because it was going to be hard enough fending off the condolences of the odious matron without the further aggro of doing it with half a face. Not that that would be a problem, necessarily. When it came to faces, Miss Foreshaft had enough for both of them.
‘Such a sweet lady,’ cooed Miss Foreshaft, ‘she will be missed.’
‘Yes,’ Michelle replied. It was a bleak room. You could have used it for delicate laboratory experiments without the slightest fear of the sample getting contaminated. It was all as sterile as a gauze dressing.
‘We were all,’ went on Miss Foreshaft, ‘so fond of her and her cute little ways. Such a good soul, in spite of everything.’
Miss Foreshaft, Michelle thought, wouldn’t it be fun if you were to end up in a place like this? No, not really. I wouldn’t wish this on anybody. ‘I’d better,’ Michelle started to say. ‘I mean, um, I suppose I ought to, um, sign something.’
‘Here.’ Miss Foreshaft’s talon pointed out the place in the form. ‘And here. And here. Yes, read it first by all means. I’ll just get the bits and bobs for you.’
The bits and bobs proved to be one small Sainsbury’s bag, two night-dresses, a pair of vintage pink slippers (furry lining much moulted), a nineteen-sixties plastic powder compact, two or three postcards (all from Michelle) and a small ring-box. Oh God, thought Michelle. Aunt Fatty’s ring.
‘And of course,’ went on Miss Foreshaft, arch as a viaduct, ‘our final account, no hurry of course, though prompt settlement would oblige. A cheque? Of course.’
Aunt Fatty - Fatima Charlotte Burrard - had been mad. Once you’d got used to the fact, it never really mattered terribly much. It wasn’t a distressing, harrowing kind of madness; it was almost cosy, in a strange way. Batty, potty, a bit doo-lally-tap. Apart from that, she was rather a sweet old lady.
‘Thank you, dear,’ said Miss Foreshaft, her claws discreetly clamped on the cheque. ‘If you’ll just bear with me two minutes, I’ll get you your receipt.’
For Aunt Fatty had talked to things. For the last twenty-five years of her life, ever since Michelle was a little girl, she had talked to inanimate objects - cookers, Hoovers, typewriters, cameras, locks, televisions, blenders; anything mechanical or electrical - instead of people. As far as she was concerned, people weren’t there, she couldn’t see or hear them. But the electric kettle and the spin-drier could, apparently; and so you communicated with Aunt Fatty by means of a series of third-party Tell-your-friend conversations involving one or more household appliances - a bit like a seance, only not in the least spooky. Once you got the hang of it, you really did stop noticing, like being fluent in a foreign language, and what Aunt Fatty actually said after all that was generally perfectly lucid, though seldom particularly interesting. Before she was married she’d worked in a draper’s shop. After she was married, she’d ironed a lot, washed things, cooked. In 1943, a flying bomb had gone off at the bottom of Kettering Avenue just as she was crossing the top end, and the bang had startled her rather. She won ten pounds on the Premium Bonds in 1974. Apart from that, a feature-length film version of her life would have to fill in rather a lot of screen time with atmospheric close-ups and long, sweeping pans over the rooftops of Halesowen.
‘Goodbye, dear,’ Miss Foreshaft yattered. ‘Do drop in any time you happen to be passing.’
Michelle smiled - it was her see-you-in-Hell-first smile, but she hadn’t quite regained the full use of her jaw muscles - got in her car and drove away. Well, she reflected, that’s what life does to you. Pity, really.
On the way, she stopped the car opposite a litter-bin. She hoped she wasn’t a hard, callous person; but two Marks & Sparks nighties and a pair of slippers that had predeceased their owner by some years weren’t exactly the sort of thing you can cherish. If you’d bust your way into a tomb in the Valley of the Kings and all you’d turned up was this lot, you’d probably pack in archaeology for good. She’d keep the postcards, but the powder-compact would have to go too. It was one of the most depressing objects she’d ever set eyes on.
Which left the ring-box. She opened it, and stood for a while, contemplating a plain silver ring, rather worn, with a bit of blue glass stuck in it. Aunt Fatty’s ring. Gosh.
The picture arose in her mind; Aunt Fatty leaning forward in her chair, whispering to the alarm clock: ‘Tell Michelle I want her to have my ring. It’s very valuable, you know. Tell her to take special care of it when I’m gone.’ And the alarm clock, swift and sure as a professional translator at a UN debate, had said tick; in other words, Humour her, obviously it means a lot to her. And Michelle had said, ‘Of course I will.’ She’d given the clock to one of the nurses, though of course she only had the towel-rail’s word for it. The ring. Mine, all mine.
Feeling unaccountably guilty, she stuffed the box in her pocket before binning the rest and driving home. When she got in, she put the box in her underwear drawer, washed her hands and played back the answering machine.
When they find out, said the man with the book, they’re going to have my guts for garters. I hope you realise that.
‘Shouldn’t have been so careless, then, should you?’ Akram replied. ‘Next time, check the guest list before you start the show. Now then, get on with it. I don’t think I’ve got much time.’
The man shook his head. Time, he explained, was now quite beside the point; Akram had died nearly half a second ago, as he’d have realised if he’d been paying attention. Besides, time doesn’t happen here, wherever this is. Don’t ask me, he added, I only work here.
‘I said get on with it. I might be dead, but I can still give you a boot up the backside. I think,’ Akram added, and for the first time ever there was a hint of uncertainty in his voice. ‘In any case,’ he added, cheering up, ‘we can have fun finding out. I’m game if you are.’
That won’t be necessary. You’re quite right, the man went on. You have died before. I can’t tell you offhand how many times, but it’s rather a lot. You see, you aren’t real. You’re in a story.
Akram hesitated. There was enough of him left to resent a remark like that, even though he hadn’t a clue what it meant; on the other hand, supposing he succeeded in breaking the man’s neck in six places, all he’d achieve would be to lose his only chance of getting an explanation.
‘Story,’ he said. ‘Right. I’d expand on that a bit if I were you.’
Stories (the man explained) are different.
Oh sure, the people in stories are people, but they live in a different way. More to the point, they do it over and over again. You don’t follow? All right.
People are born, right? They grow up. They live. They die. But if every character in every story had to do all that, the story would be very long and extremely boring, and nobody would want to hear it. So we edit. Perfectly reasonable way to go about things.
People in stories begin with Once-upon-a-time, and end with Happy-ever-after; and the bit in between goes on for ever, over and over again, in a sort of continuous loop. So; each time you reach the end, you die, or you marry the princess and rule half the kingdom, it doesn’t matter which. The story is over, and you go back to the beginning again. Then, when you reach the end, the story repeats itself. You, of course, don’t remember a thing, and that’s probably just as well.
You’re not convinced? I’ll give you an example. Captain Hook. Now, Captain Hook’s called Captain Hook because he’s got a hook instead of his left hand. This is because Peter Pan cut it off and fed it to the crocodile. Think about it. What about before? Like, what about when he was born? Or when he was at school. He still had both hands then. Was he still called Hook? If so, why? Or did he go around calling himself James Temporary-Sign until the time came?
No. You see, by the time the story starts, it’s already happened, and so it’s all okay. It’s the same for all you people who live in fairy-stories. You don’t like that word. Okay, call it legends if you’d rather, but it’s a bit like living in Finchley and calling it Hampstead.
Not that it matters; because, like I said, you forget every time. In two shakes of a camel’s withers you’ll be back at the beginning, which in your case means returning to the magic cave and shouting Open sesame while Ali Baba hides behind a rock. Then the cave opens, and you and the other thirty-nine thieves ride in with all the treasure from your latest raid and the cave door slams shut behind you.
What do you mean, what can you do about it? Nothing. You’re stuck with it. Because that’s who you are.
Don’t be silly. Of course you can’t.
You can’t.
And then the lights came back on, and in front of him Akram saw the familiar outline of the cliff looming over him, silhouetted against the night sky.
‘Open sesame!’ shouted a deep, cruel voice. His, by God! But . . .
He remembered.
He looked round. Behind him were thirty-nine horsemen, motionless as a motorway contraflow. One of them was talking to him.
‘Skip,’ he was saying, ‘can we go in now, please, because I don’t know about you but I’m bloody well freezing.’
‘Here, Skip.’
Akram looked round. He knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that behind that rock lurked his great and perpetual enemy, the accursed thief, his eventual slayer, Ali Baba. One blow of his sword would be all it would take. His brain ordered his heels to spur on his horse. Nothing.
Now then, Akram told himself, no need to panic, or at least not yet. ‘Aziz,’ he said, ‘I think there’s someone lurking behind that rock.’
‘Surely not, Skip.’
‘I think there is.’
‘Imagination playing tricks on you, Skip. Look, no offence, but I really am bursting for a pee, so if you wouldn’t mind just—’
Akram drew in a deep breath. ‘Aziz,’ he said, ‘just go and have a look, there’s a good chap. Won’t take you a moment.’
A moment later, Aziz came back. While he’d been gone, Akram had distinctly seen a movement behind the door, heard the sound of rapid, terrified breathing. He was there, dammit.
‘Nothing, Skip. Not a dicky bird. Now, can we please go in?’
Feebly, Akram waved him on; and then his horse started to move, and when he ordered his hand to pull on the reins, it flatly refused. Thirty seconds or so later, the door slammed shut behind them.
Bugger, said Akram to himself.
And, sure enough, when they returned to the cave next evening, after a hard day’s killing and stealing up and down the main Baghdad-Samarkand road, they found the treasure-chests empty, all the gold and silver and precious stones lost and gone for ever. No poll-tax bailiff ever did such a thorough job.
‘Bloody hell, Skip,’ wailed the thirty-nine thieves, ‘we’ve been done over! Now who on earth could have found out the password?’
Ali Baba, you fools; Ali Baba the palm-oil merchant, who lives in the house beside the East Gate. Ali Ba . . .
‘No idea,’ he heard himself saying. ‘Search me.’
And then Fazad had picked up a slipper, and they’d all crowded round to have a look, and someone had said, Presumably this slipper belongs to the thieving little snotrag what done this, and he’d heard himself say, Yes, presumably it does, now all we’ve got to do is find who it belongs to, and what he really wanted to do was bite his own tongue out for saying it and not saying A** B***, and if he had to go through with this he’d go stark staring mad; except of course he wouldn’t, because it wasn’t in the story. Inside, though, he’d go mad, and then in all likelihood his brain would die, and he’d be stuck here doing this ridiculous thing for ever and ever and ever.
Late that night, in his sleep, he hit on the solution. He’d outwit the bastard. He’d change. He’d go straight.
It was, after all, completely logical. He knew, better than any man ever born, that crime didn’t pay. From the first day you step out of line and swipe a bag of dates off the counter while the stallholder isn’t looking or tell your mum there wasn’t any change, it’s only a matter of time before the lid comes off the palm-oil jar and the hot water comes sploshing down. But he was wise to that now. He’d change. He’d be good.
Better than that. He’d change the whole story.
Instead of being the baddy, he’d be the goody.

Michelle woke up.
If she’d been on the jury when Macbeth was brought to trial for murdering sleep, she’d have argued for an acquittal on the grounds of justifiable homicide. Loathsome stuff, sleep; it fogs your brain and leaves the inside of your mouth tasting like a badly furred kettle.
‘Wakey wakey,’ trilled the alarm clock. ‘Rise and shine.’
‘Oh shut up,’ Michelle grunted. She’d been in the middle of a very nice dream, and now she couldn’t remember a thing about it. She nuzzled her head into the pillow, trying to find the spot where she’d left the dream, but it had gone, leaving no forwarding address.
‘Jussa minute,’ she said. ‘Did you just say something?’
Tick, replied the clock.
‘Shut up,’ Michelle replied, ‘and make the tea.’
It was a radio alarm clock teamaker, a free gift from an insurance company - free in the sense that all she’d had to do in order to receive it was promise to pay them huge sums of money every month for the rest of her natural life. She’d managed to disconnect the radio, but the tea-making aspect still functioned, albeit in a somewhat heavy-handed manner. First, there was a rumbling; until you were used to it, you assumed something nasty was happening deep in the earth’s crust, and expected to see molten lava streaming off the bedside table and onto the carpet. After the rumbling came the whistling, which generally put Michelle in mind of a swarm of locusts being slowly microwaved. The whistling was followed by the gurgling, the snorting and the Very Vulgar Noise; and then you could have your tea. You were also, of course, wide awake. If God has one of these machines, then He’ll be able to use it to wake the dead come Judgment Day. And have a nice cup of tea ready and waiting for them, of course.
‘Drink it while it’s hot.’
Michelle blinked. If this was still the dream, it had taken a turn for the worse and frankly, she didn’t like its tone. She raised her head and gave the clock a long, bleary stare.
‘What did you just say?’ she asked.
Needless to say, the clock didn’t answer. Clocks don’t; apart, of course, from the Speaking Clock, and there the problem is to get a word in edgeways. Not that it ever listens to a word you say. Michelle shook her head in an effort to dislodge the low cloud that seemed to have got into it during the night, and swung her feet over the edge of the bed.
It was half past eight.
‘Oh hell!’ she shrieked. ‘You stupid machine, why didn’t you tell me?’
Scattering bedclothes, she lunged for the bathroom and started to turn on taps. So loud was the roar of running water that she didn’t hear a little voice replying, somewhat resentfully, that she hadn’t asked.
When the other thirty-nine thieves had gone to sleep, Akram stood up, waited for a moment or so, and then walked quietly over to the big bronze door of the Treasury.
‘It’s me,’ he hissed. ‘Now shut up and open.’
The door was, sure enough, magical; but it wasn’t so magical that it could cope with two apparently contradictory orders at half past three in the morning. ‘’Scuse me?’ it said.


On Sale
Sep 4, 2012
Page Count
312 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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