The Better Mousetrap


By Tom Holt

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It touches all our lives; our triumphs and tragedies, our proudest achievements, our most traumatic disasters. Alloyed of love and fear, death and fire and the inscrutable acts of the gods, insurance is indeed the force that binds the universe together.

Hardly surprising, therefore, that Frank Carpenter, one of the foremost magical practitioners of our age, felt himself irresistibly drawn to it. Until, that is, he met Jane, a high-flying corporate heroine with an annoying habit of falling out of trees and getting killed. Repeatedly.

It’s not long before Frank and Jane find themselves face to face with the greatest enigma of our times: When is a door not a door? When it’s a mousetrap.


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

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


On a hot sunny day, a big blue road sign beside a busy dual carriageway.

Cars swished past. It’s in the nature of road signs that they’re only ever glanced at. In the time it took, something like a hundred people looked at the sign, but none of them for long enough to see the outline of a door forming in its lower left-hand corner. At first it was just a vaguely suggested rectangle traced by two-dimensional lines, as though someone had drawn them on with a black marker pen and a ruler. Then panels started to press their way through the waterproof cellulose coating, like mushrooms sprouting through compost. A round brass doorknob popped out and, after a moment, slowly began to turn. The lines around the door darkened. It swung open.

A set of foldaway stairs, such as you’d expect on an old-fashioned carriage, flopped out, groped for a moment in mid-air, and found the grass. A man in a long, brown, slightly damp robe, belted at the waist with rope and hooded with a cowl, walked carefully down the steps. Tucked under his arm was a big thin square; hardboard, possibly, or corrugated plastic, but wrapped in brown paper tied with string.

At the foot of the sign the robed man glanced at the watch on his wrist. He set the square thing down on the grass, knelt beside it, untied the knots, pulled off the brown paper, carefully folded it up and slipped it into one of his billowing sleeves. He stood up, facing away from the road, and took from his other sleeve a small clipboard. He checked something, nodded to himself, looked at his watch again. He was counting seconds under his breath.

Something snagged his attention, and he looked up at the doorway in the road sign. Standing on the top step of the stairs, tail wagging, was a small brown and white dog; it shook itself and barked. The robed man muttered to himself and made a shooing gesture at the dog, which took no notice. Behind it, in the gap in nature between the door frame and the door, rain flicked the dog’s backside; a few drops trickled down its leg onto the top step of the stairs, and vanished.

The robed man checked his watch again, still counting, and when he reached a certain number he turned round to face the carriageway and advanced five paces, until he was leaning up against the crash barrier. With a broad, friendly smile on his face he lifted the hardboard square over his head. It was white, with two words written on it in big block capitals:


The driver of a red Peugeot, who’d just been about to pull out and overtake, caught sight of the board, frowned briefly, and checked his mirror again. The gap in the traffic he’d intended to pull out into had closed up. He clicked his tongue and braked slightly.

The cowled man watched until the red Peugeot was out of sight, then shouldered his board and walked back to the foot of his folding stairs. The dog wagged its tail hopefully, but the man shook his head and climbed the steps. The door closed behind him, and vanished.

Because everything takes time, even Time itself, there was a pause before nothing happened.

‘This way,’ the manager whispered nervously. ‘Mind your head.’

Because she was only five feet tall, she didn’t bother to duck. Low ceilings and doorways were one of the few hazards of life that happened to other people and not to her. ‘Could we get on, please?’ she said, loudly and briskly. ‘I’m due in Fenchurch Street at eleven.’

The manager didn’t reply, but the back of his neck stiffened. Oh dear, she thought, the public. Still; it was possible that this was his first time, and one had to make allowances. The public had some very funny ideas about this sort of thing. They thought that if you crept along with your shoulders hunched and spoke in whispers, you’d be safe. Probably just as well. If the silly man had any idea of the danger he was in, he’d be halfway to Luton by now, and accelerating.

To put him at his ease, she decided to ask questions. She didn’t actually need the data, but the public liked to get involved. Up to a point.

‘How long’s it been here, did you say?’

At least—’ The manager stopped, straightened his neck and dropped the whisper. ‘At least two days,’ he said, ‘possibly longer, we can’t be sure. We don’t come down here very often, after all. I mean, we’ve got all that expensive CCTV stuff, there shouldn’t be any need. But—’

‘I know,’ she said. ‘I expect it was the temperature that gave it away.’

‘Humidity level, actually,’ the manager replied. ‘We have to be very careful about damp, you see, so we monitor the humidity.’ He frowned. ‘What I don’t understand is, if the damp meter registers that it’s there, why didn’t it show up on the CCTV?’

‘It’s technical,’ she said, taking a little grey box from her briefcase and looking at it. ‘All right,’ she said, ‘this is as far as you go. I’ll take it from here.’

He turned to look at her, and his face was pale grey. ‘Are you sure?’

She knew better than to be offended. She was twenty-eight years old, five feet nothing and slightly built. It was understandable. ‘Quite sure,’ she said, without snapping. ‘There shouldn’t be any bother, but if you could please keep your staff out of the lower ground floor until I give you the all-clear—’

The manager was frowning. ‘It’s just,’ he said, ‘when we used to use JWW, the chap they sent was – well, taller, and . . .’

She smiled at him. She had a nice smile, under different circumstances. ‘Let me see,’ she said. ‘That would probably have been Ricky Wurmtoter – six foot seven-ish, broad shoulders, lots of blond hair, bit of an accent?’

‘That sounds like him, yes.’

She nodded. Normally she wouldn’t get heavy with a client, but it was turning into a long day, her shoes were rubbing her heels and she very much wanted to go to the lavatory. ‘Ricky and I trained together,’ she said. ‘He came second in our year, actually. He’s dead now,’ she added. ‘I’m not.’

The manager looked at her. ‘Oh.’

‘It’ll be all right,’ she said, as reassuringly as she could be bothered to be. ‘If you just go back to the lift and wait for me there, I’ll be back as soon as I’ve finished. Shouldn’t take long. If you hear a bang and a loud thump, that’s perfectly normal.’

‘All right.’ He turned, walked away for a few steps, paused and looked back at her. ‘So if Mr Whatsisname came second in your year, who—?’


‘Ah. Fine.’ Pause. ‘Sorry.’

She waited until his footsteps had faded, then forced herself to relax. Piece of cake, she told herself. Just another day at the office. She shifted the briefcase into her left hand and carried on up the corridor.

Usually she was able to feed off the chauvinism and the patronising comments. A little tiny bit of anger helped, if used properly. This time, though, instead of fuelling her resolve, the manager’s obvious doubts lay heavy on her stomach, like a hot dog with onions at lunchtime. She wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was because he’d dragged Ricky Wurmtoter into it, and she’d always loathed Ricky. Maybe. It was, of course, perfectly true that she’d beaten Ricky in their finals by a clear six marks. But in accountancy, not in this.

The smell. Oh God, the smell.

With a tremendous effort, she put it out of her mind. They smell: so what? Big deal. The smell never killed anyone. It was probably the only harmless thing about them.

Even so.

She knelt down, laid her briefcase on the tiled floor and flipped open the catches. There was a theory (Ellison and Macziewicz in New Thaumaturgical Quarterly, June 1997) that they generated the smell deliberately, to confuse predators and disrupt their concentration. The article she’d read made out a pretty convincing case, but she didn’t believe it. She reckoned they smelled bad because they ate a high-fat, low-fibre diet and had no concept of hygiene. To a certain extent, her views had been shaped by her first encounter with one of the loathsome things, in the vaults of the First Mercantile Bank of Cleveland, Ohio. It stood to reason, after all. Any creature who ate Americans was bound, sooner or later, to suffer from chronic flatulence.

She’d originally intended to use the sixteen-millimetre, but a glance at the white encrustations on the tunnel walls and the evidence of her nose made her change her mind and go for the eighteen-millimetre instead. This wasn’t a cub or a pricket; it was a big old bull. She stuck the needle into the bottle of SlayMore, drew the plunger back smoothly, and pressed the base until a single amber drop dribbled from the needle’s point. Then she laid the syringe carefully down beside her, unwrapped the pound of fresh raw liver she’d bought on the way over, and injected the SlayMore into it.

Piece of cake, she told herself nervously.

She left her briefcase leaning against the wall and advanced slowly and cautiously down the tunnel. The smell was getting stronger – it was like breathing poison custard – and under her feet the tiled floor quivered slightly. That was, of course, how you knew you were coming into olfactory range; the point at which you could feel the beating of its trip-hammer heart through the soles of your shoes.

The vibrations underfoot were starting to give her a headache; not to mention the effect on her unfortunate bladder. Never have a second cup of coffee before going out on a job. She scowled into the grey shadows; this was far enough, her instincts told her. It’ll be able to smell the raw meat from here, and then it’s just a matter of time. She laid the liver down on the floor, turned and walked back the way she’d just come. Vital, needless to say, not to run at this point. Their huge brains were hard-wired to detect the sound of running feet, and once they’d registered it they had no choice but to pursue, the same way a cat can’t help batting at a trailing bit of string.

Back to where she’d left the briefcase. She opened it, took out a two-inch-thick wad of typescript, settled herself down with her back to the wall and began to read.

Ten minutes later, she heard the first groan.

She didn’t look up from her paperwork, but she allowed her top lip to twitch into a trace of a smile. From first groan to stone-cold dead was always, invariably, fourteen minutes. You could set your watch by it. You could regulate atomic clocks by it. Whatever the hell the SlayMore people put in the stuff, it was totally reliable. She folded a page over and carried on reading.

(Totally reliable is, of course, just an upbeat way of saying that it hadn’t failed yet; or at least, nobody had lived to notify the manufacturers of an authenticated case of failure. It’s hard to complain when you’re a pile of fine white ash on the floor of a bank vault and in no position to draw comfort from the fact that the warranty you never lived to claim under in no way affects your statutory rights.)

Second groan. As the roof of the tunnel shook and flakes of dust and mortar drifted down and settled on the page in front of her, she looked at her watch. Bang on time – good old SlayMore. Without realising she was doing it, she began to count under her breath. She also read the same paragraph five times, without taking in a single word.

It was perfectly natural to be a bit apprehensive at this point, she told herself. After all, she was no more than a hundred yards away from a fully grown bull dragon currently dying of acute indigestion. Everybody in the trade knew that once you’d heard the first groan you were safe. The stuff was doing its job, eating its way through the dragon’s intestines; the last thing on the wretched creature’s mind at this point would be springing to its feet, spreading its wings and going out looking for a fight. That was what made dragonslaying such a doddle, though naturally you never let the client know that. The client, if he thought about it at all, pictured you hacking away at the monster with a bloody great big sword, dodging plumes of blue fire and elephant-tusk-sized teeth. Mental images like that helped reconcile him to the awesome magnitude of the bill. To the client, dragonslaying was heroism. To the trade, it was just pest control, and the difference between dragons, rats and silverfish was merely a question of scale.

No pun intended.

The third groan was a blast of burning hot air that ruffled her papers and left her face and hands feeling scorched and raw. Exactly on time: six minutes to go. She unwrapped a peppermint and ate it.

The document she was reading was nothing special; still more DEFRA guidelines on the eco-friendly disposal of triffid waste, to comply with the latest EU directive; no more than five thousand kilos to be incinerated per hectare, separate disposal of the stings and venom sacs at designated triffid-elimination depots sited at least five kilometres from the nearest inland waterway, a list of chemical reagents authorised for residue neutralisation . . . She clicked her tongue and sighed. Whoever drew up this garbage lived in a world of their own. Everybody knew that in the real world, you got a JCB and dug a very deep pit and that was that. According to the old-timers, you could grow the most humongous runner beans on the site of a triffid dump; not being a gardener herself, she was prepared to take their word for it.

Five minutes. Ho hum.

If the bards of old had told the truth about dragonslaying – that the worst part of it’s the hanging about waiting in draughty tunnels – there’d be a great deal less epic poetry and, quite probably, a lot more dragons. Of course, that wasn’t the whole truth; it wasn’t just hanging about waiting, it was hanging about waiting while being in mortal peril (because one day a subspecies of dragons on whom even SlayMore has no effect will evolve, at which point expect to see financial meltdown on the currency exchanges and gold going through the roof). That kind of boredom, as any soldier will tell you, is every bit as mind-numbing as, say, accountancy, but with the added mental toothache of cold, bowel-loosening terror lurking a millimetre or so under the surface of the subconscious. There was also the nagging thought that, a hundred yards down the tunnel, a magnificent and highly intelligent animal was dying an extremely painful and protracted death. That was one aspect of the job she tried very hard not to think about; which was a bit like the old gag about not thinking of an elephant. She knew, of course, that Western capitalism simply couldn’t function unless dragons were strictly controlled. Their instinct was to seek out large accumulations of wealth and sit on them, carbonising anybody who came within nose-shot; which was why the firm she worked for had such an impressive client portfolio in the banking and art-gallery sector. Even so. There was still a small, idealistic, whale-saving corner of her mind where she couldn’t help thinking there had to be a better way. Dragon safari parks, maybe, or really long-term designated deposit accounts. But the closest anybody had ever come to making a go of it was the US military’s secret trials at Fort Knox; and it had taken the legendary Kurt Lundqvist and two thousand gallons of SlayMore Triple-X-Xtra to sort that one out. No: it was really quite simple, when you looked at it sensibly. Harsh commercial realities. Them or us.

Time. She got up, knocking over her briefcase in doing so. The lid burst open and a load of stuff spilled out of it onto the floor. She sighed and patiently shovelled it all back in, then tried to close the lid. Needless to say, it wouldn’t shut. She shuffled the contents around a bit, took out a tube of manticore-rated tranquillisers and stowed it away in her pocket, and tried again. Success.

From her other pocket she took out a small black box, like an old-fashioned photographer’s light meter. She turned a dial at the side and watched the needles on the three dials. When a dragon dies, the temperature drops, humidity levels rocket and the ambient Mortensen quotient falls back to a constant 6.339. It was all over bar the dentistry.

Even so.

Other practitioners – taller, more powerfully built members of the profession: men – liked to draw a sword at this point, or at the very least lock and load a fifty-calibre Barrett sniper rifle or a rocket launcher. She knew better than that. If the bloody thing was still alive, no amount of hardware would save her. There’d be a blinding white light, and the last thing she’d hear would be the hiss of her bodily fluids boiling inside her and a soft, reptilian snigger. But the meter said that the dragon was dead, and if there was one thing you could rely on in this business it was a Kawaguchiya XP770 E-Z-Scan. Gripping the briefcase tightly in her left hand, she started to walk up the tunnel.

According to the company’s literature, the vaults of the City branch of the National Lombard Bank are the biggest in Europe. They’re proud of the fact, the implication being that NatLom have got more money than anybody else, and so need somewhere big to keep it all. She was used to all that sort of thing, of course, having seen and de-infested them all in her time, but nevertheless, the sheer scale of what she saw as she walked through the melted ruin of the massive steel door made her catch her breath. You could have built a cathedral in there, or a railway terminal. The roof was disturbingly high, its proportions emphasised by the shiny white tiles and brushed-steel fittings – what was left of them. The dragon had been busy, ripping out what it couldn’t be bothered to melt. Dragons like space, and an absence of clutter behind which their enemies can hide.

She felt something soft under her feet; but she paid it no attention. She was looking at the dragon.

It was, quite unmistakably, dead. In its last throes it had twisted itself up like the rubber band on a balsa-wood aeroplane, its head jammed tight under its left wing, its open jaws pointing at the roof, its claws frozen in the air in a last frantic scrabble. She deliberately froze her emotions and noted that it was indeed a full-grown adult male, somewhere between three and five hundred years old (after three hundred it’s hard to tell precisely without careful examination of the claws and the ring of bone at the base of the horn); in any event, it was an old example of a species that improves exponentially with age. The teeth – she counted, then did the mental arithmetic. The teeth were traditionally the dragonslayer’s perks; except, of course, that under the terms of her contract, they belonged to the firm, not to her. Annoying, since it’d be her job to gouge the bloody things out. At twelve thousand dollars a tooth . . . She sighed. One of these days, the banks were going to find out how much those things were worth, and then there’d be trouble.

Green scales, she noticed. Who were they using as dragonknackers these days? Ibbotsons did a quick, efficient job but their charges were vicious. K & J Dragon Removals were quite reasonable, but they were sloppy about details such as acid leakage and blood clean-up, which annoyed the clients. (Understandable: no conscientious employer liked to see its staff dissolving from the feet up, or suddenly gifted with the ability to understand the language of birds.) The last she’d heard, Hancocks had been using Harry Fry, who was the most appalling cowboy. Zauberwerk UK were rumoured to be doing all their disposals inhouse. That made sense, given the high value of dragon salvage. There were enough scales on this one alone to insulate a whole fleet of space shuttles.

Under her feet, something soft. Also, something that wasn’t there. She knelt down and picked up a handful of fine white ash.

The something that wasn’t there, she realised with a jolt that shook her whole body, was money. According to the bank, there should be- She took the briefing memo out of her pocket, counted the noughts and swore. And, as well as the cash, there ought to be bonds, securities, debentures, all that sort of thing. A substantial part of the wealth of the country should be down here, neatly parcelled up in bundles and sealed in wrappers. Instead, there was ash, and a great deal of empty space.

She looked at the dragon. For some reason which she couldn’t begin to imagine, the dragon had incinerated all the money, every last note of it. Which was crazy. The love of dragons for cash money was, according to all the best authorities, the fiercest, most passionate emotion in the whole world. They scooped it up, nested in it, played with it for hours like happy kittens and, as far as they were concerned, nice soft paper was even better than gold. A dragon would be as likely to eat its own young as to damage a banknote.

With the side of her foot she traced a little furrow in the ash. Unthinkable, she thought. Unless—

She walked slowly across the floor until she was standing next to the vast contorted carcass. She studied the way the ash lay scooped and heaped into dunes around it. She put her head on one side and squinted a little. A bit like a sandcastle, or rather, a ring of sand forts surrounding a citadel. Even in its last convulsive moments, as the SlayMore dissolved its guts and burnt away its heart and lungs, it had been trying to shield something with its enormous bulk.

What, though? She could tell from the lie of the ash that it had done everything it could not to roll on one particular spot, but there was nothing there; just a fine layer of ash covering the white tiles. Something: something so valuable, maybe, that as far as the dragon was concerned billions of dollars’ worth of negotiable currency was just more clutter to be got rid of, along with the shelves and the cabinets and the surveillance hardware. In which case, something truly beyond price. But there wasn’t anything there. Just ash and floor.

Not my problem, she thought; and then it occurred to her that, as soon as she gave the all-clear, the manager would come scuttling down the tunnel expecting to see all that money, and wasn’t he ever going to be disappointed. She winced. It wasn’t her fault and she’d done a thoroughly professional, efficient job, but she had a strong feeling that the client wasn’t going to be happy. Never mind, she told herself. Let’s finish up and get out of here, before the ash hits the fan.

Serpentine dentistry is a miserable affair. She got the pliers out of her briefcase, pulled on her Teflon-impregnated gloves and made a start. She had a plastic box to put the teeth in. Mercifully, they came out relatively easily, but her wrists and elbows were still painfully sore by the time she’d finished. The key thing, of course, was to make sure that you didn’t drop one . . .

She clipped the lid onto the box, stuffed it into her briefcase, put away the pliers, took off the gloves. Ash powdered under her heel. The next bit, she reckoned, was going to be awkward. She took her phone out of her pocket and thumbed in the number.

‘All done,’ she said.

‘Are you all right? Is it—?’


‘And the- I mean, did it do much damage?’

Deep breath. ‘You’d better see for yourself.’

‘Not the shelving,’ the manager’s voice whimpered. ‘It was brand new last month. God only knows what the board’s going to say if we’ve got to have all new shelving.’

‘I don’t think you need worry too much about that,’ she said, and rang off.

One last look back at the dragon. It was wrong to feel sympathy for it. Anything that big and powerful that allowed itself to be killed by a squirt of chemical hidden in a gobbet of liver was a disgrace to supernature and deserved whatever it got. But all that money; she’d seen yearling dragon colts fight each other to the death over a Scottish five-pound note. Burning all that money because it wasn’t worth anything, because it was irrelevant… She squeezed her brain for an alternative explanation, but there wasn’t one. The only possible reason was that it had found something else buried in the vault; something so valuable that, in comparison, money had no meaning. Even in the last stages of a SlayMore death it had avoided a small patch of the tiled floor, so as not to damage something. But she’d looked. There was nothing there.

She was positive there was nothing. After all, she’d looked.

Clearly, not carefully enough. Dropping her briefcase, she sprinted across the floor, kicking up little spirals of ash as she ran. Scrambling over an uplifted scaly leg, she dropped to her knees and scrabbled.

It had burned all the money, just as it had trashed the fittings and smelted the built-in fixtures. Dragons were like that, obsessive-compulsive. When they went broody, everything that wasn’t treasure had to go. So if there was anything, anything at all, on that patch of desperately guarded floor, that’d be it, the something. A gemstone, perhaps – no, too bulky. All right, then, a microchip. What about the legendary ninth-generation Kawaguchiya sentient microprocessor prototype, which was believed to be locked away in a bank vault somewhere, waiting for the day when the global economy had grown enough to afford its existence? That’d be a hoard worthy of a really knowledgeable dragon. And it’d be small.

Her fingernails trailed furrows in the ash. Some things are too small to see but big enough to feel. In the distance she could hear footsteps echoing in the tunnel. The manager was coming, and she really didn’t want him to find her like this, it’d lead to all sorts of awkwardness. In despair, she made one more sweep with her left hand, and touched something.

A cardboard tube. Just like the ones you find in the middle of toilet rolls.

Oh, she thought.


  • Highly amusing ... Eloquently snarky prose—Publishers Weekly
  • Tom Holt's comic fantasy is a great, uplifting read, fit to grace any reader's book collection—Waterstoneâ??s Books Quarterly
  • Inventively entertaining ...make you both laugh out loud and stop and think—SFX
  • Holt's quirky characters and whimsical voice successfully infuse life into this entertaining romantic comedy—Publishers Weekly

On Sale
May 7, 2009
Page Count
384 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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