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By Tom Holt
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Format:ebook (Digital original) $3.99
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around September 4, 2012. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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As everyone knows, when great warriors die, their reward is eternal life in Odin’s bijou little residence known as Valhalla. But Valhalla has just changed. It has grown. It has diversified. Just like any corporation, the Valhalla Group has had to adapt to survive. Unfortunately, not even an omniscient Norse god could have prepared Valhalla for the arrival of Carol Kortright, one-time cocktail waitress, last seen dead, and not at all happy.
‘Oh look,’observed Napoleon. ‘There’s a speck of dust.’ Because of the marvellous acoustics in the vast, crowded amphitheatre, his muttered observation rolled through the rows of seats and out across the stage like summer thunder. Nobody moved or spoke for a very long time.
‘Coo,’ said Genghis Khan eventually. ‘So there is.’
A week passed uneventfully. Far away, above, outside, the latest minor war sputtered ambitiously as it swept through a medium-sized town (Hundreds feared dead, the newspaper men typed, big soppy grins on their faces) and drops of blood froze as they sank into the snow. But this was a better place, a peaceful place. No war here.
‘Are you sure it’s a speck of dust?’ quavered a frail little voice somewhere near the back.
‘Shut up, Attila, I’m trying to concentrate.’
In the middle of the stage stood The Wall: a plain brick wall some seventeen feet high, painted white. From the far end of the auditorium it looked so tiny that the men squashed together on the back row had to use massively powerful binoculars to see it at all.
‘That’s not a speck of dust,’ said Frederick the Great, adjusting the eyepieces. ‘That’s a gnat.’
‘Rubbish,’ replied Ulysses S. Grant, a thousand rows further down. ‘That’s dust, I’m telling ya.’
Two more weeks passed. The latest minor war fizzled out into wussy peace talks, and at the back of the auditorium a door opened and the usher discreetly escorted a few new arrivals to their seats.
‘Welcome,’ he whispered.
‘Thank you,’ replied one of the new arrivals. ‘Um, where is this?’
The usher smiled pleasantly. ‘Valhalla,’ he said.
The new arrivals sat down, and the usher issued each of them with a warm rug, a thermos flask and a pair of incredibly sophisticated binoculars. ‘Enjoy,’ he added, and withdrew.
A month slipped by; after which, one of the newbies managed to summon up enough courage to tap his neighbour gently on the sleeve.
‘Piss off, I’m trying to concentrate.’
A fortnight later, he tried again. ‘Sorry to bother you,’ he said, ‘but—’
The newbie took a deep breath. ‘Excuse me,’ he said, ‘but what are you all looking at?’
‘The Wall, of course,’ replied the old hand, tucking the rug closer around his knees. ‘Now keep quiet, for God’s sake. We’re just getting to the interesting bit.’
‘Ah,’ said the newbie; and for the next ten days he stared hard at the Wall through his state-of-the-art Zeiss lenses. The newbie was an intelligent man, and observant - well, you didn’t get to be second-in-command of the entire Air Force without being pretty damn observant. ‘I don’t get it,’ he whispered.
‘Christ,’ hissed his neighbour angrily (and thanks to the excellent acoustics, he shared the remark with the whole audience). ‘Don’t you ever stop talking?’
The newbie was a master tactician. ‘I’ll gladly shut up,’ he replied, ‘if you tell me what you’re all staring at.’
The old hand sighed. ‘The paint, of course.’
‘On the wall.’
Far away, above, outside, another minor war cautiously nuzzled its way into the world, like a snowdrop blossoming. ‘But that’s crazy,’ muttered the newbie. ‘Watching paint dry: what kind of eternal reward is that for a lifetime of service and a glorious death in battle?’
‘Reward?’ The old hand looked at him oddly. ‘You fool, this is Valhalla.’
‘Val-halla,’ Carol repeated, rolling the syllables round her tongue and savouring them. ‘Sounds cool.’
Her friend gave her a contemptuous look. ‘Cool,’ she repeated. ‘A great big place full of dead guys fighting. Sounds to me like somebody needs to get a life real bad.’
The young man propped his elbows on the bar and shrugged. ‘You’re entitled to your opinion,’ he said. ‘All I’m saying is, that was how they saw it. They liked fighting and killing. Their motto was, who needs to get a life when you can take one instead?’
The girl dried a glass thoughtfully. ‘Tell me more about the - what did you say they were called? Valkyries?’
The young man nodded. ‘Literally translated,’ he said, licking beer-froth out of his moustache, ‘it means choosers of the slain. Like, they got to decide who was worthy of going to Odin and who wasn’t.’
‘That’s what they did?’
‘You bet,’ said the young man. ‘And then they escorted the souls of the heroes to Valhalla, where they brought them these huge jugs of ale and stuff.’
‘Driving cabs and clearing up after dead guys,’ sniffed the cynical friend. ‘It gets better. In my neighbourhood, most of that Valkyrie stuff gets done by Puerto Ricans.’
‘Ignore her,’ said the girl. ‘I think it sounds—’ She paused, searching for the right word. ‘Glorious,’ she decided. ‘It sounds glorious.’
The young man finished his beer. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I gotta go. It was real nice meeting you.’
‘You’re leaving?’ the girl said.
The young man left; and not long after that the bar closed and it was time for her to go home. Choosers of the slain, she thought, as she unlocked the massively secured door of her apartment. That’s got a ring to it. That’s what I call a job description.
She played back her messages - boring, dull, mundane, obscene phone call, boring - got undressed, climbed into bed and clicked off the light. In the darkness, the image lingered: a high, vast roof of massive beams dimly visible through the smoke of a great orange fire glowing in a long hearth that ran the whole length of the enormous, crowded hall, with tables and benches crammed with bearded warriors on either side; at one end, a raised dais, a high table in the shadows where a looming presence sits and watches; noise and thundering laughter, wooden platters and horn mugs banged on the tabletop, not quite drowning out the strange, compelling music of the old blind harper in the far corner—
( Jesus! I don’t know spit about Viking interior design. Where in my mind is all this weird stuff coming from? Or did I die in my sleep and get sent to California?)
She woke up, her eyes open, and listened: nothing, except (far away, below, outside) the blaring of car horns, a few shouts - angry, confused, drunk, stoned - two people having a loud argument in one of the apartments down the hall, distant synthetic music. Must’ve seen it on TV or some movie, she rationalised sleepily. Wasn’t there that thing with Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis? She lay back and listened to the noises, strangely comforting in their familiarity. They lulled her to sleep like the babble of a mountain brook or the patter of spring rain on thatch. —Back to the smoky, echoing hall, where she slammed down a froth-slopping mug of ale in front of a huge man who looked like he was drowning in his own beard. She barked out, ‘Okay, what’ll it be?’
The bearded man looked at the slab of rune-inscribed wood in his hands. ‘May I to be having the double roast ox on rye?’ he said. ‘Extra onions. However, please to hold the olive.’
Out of nowhere, a heavily laden platter appeared in her right hand. (Of course: all the food and drink are magic here.) She put it down on the table, skilfully avoided an enormous wandering hand, muttered ‘Have a nice day,’ and hobbled - goddamn uncomfortable high-heeled boots - down the line of benches to fill another order. Her armour (why was she wearing armour?) was hot and slimy with ambient cooking grease. She could feel things snooping about in her hair. Another wandering paw probed her defences and this time managed to slip past; she cracked it across the knuckles with the edge of her tray.
You don’t have to be dead to work here, but it helps.
‘Of course,’ laughed a flaxen-bearded, red-nosed giant, grabbing her wrist and pulling her toward him. ‘Valholl.’
She was too startled to do anything except stare at him. ‘Excuse me?’ she said.
‘Valholl. Val-hall-a.’ He grinned, revealing a mouthful of yellow stumps that would have revolted one of those small birds who live by picking rotting meat out from between the teeth of crocodiles. ‘Hadn’t you for yourself it been working out? This the afterlife not for dead heroes is. This the afterlife for uppity cocktail waitresses.’
And then, of course, she woke up. As her eyes opened, she could feel relief flooding through her - for a brief, terrifying moment she’d actually believed that she’d died and ended up in that ghastly, horrific place. The light filled her eyes, warm and mellow. She yawned gratefully, stretched out her arms, and felt something.
Eeek, she thought; and then, It must have been a better night than I thought I remembered. She blinked through the yellow dazzle of sunlight and propped herself up on one elbow.
Beside her in the bed - you could just about call a pile of mangy furs and smelly blankets a bed - was a large, naked, sleeping, unhygienic-looking Norseman.
Oh shit, she thought. Valhalla.
All the comforts, all the excitement, all the fun: everything the original had, in fact, except the need to die first.
That, at least, was the theory.
At the end of the table there was a crash, and someone swore. Howard leaned forward enough to be able to see round Veronica’s knee-thick elbow and quickly identified the source of the disturbance. Dennis had tried to get up from the table, forgotten that he was still wearing his chain mail, been pulled off balance by the weight, and fallen over. He was now lying on his back like a silver beetle, waving his arms and legs in the air in a futile attempt to get up again.
It can’t have been like this, Howard thought. For all that our props and costumes and armour are near-as-dammit authentic, we must be missing something. People back then didn’t just fall over, surely? Someone - Chaucer, or a saga-writer or somebody - would have mentioned it.
‘Help him up, someone, for pity’s sake,’ Veronica sighed. ‘Just lying there, he’s making the place look untidy.’
‘Nah,’ replied Fat Tony, his mouth full of spit-roast Sainsbury’s ox. ‘Falling over and writhing about in the straw is period. Definitely period. He should be drunk, of course, or dying of ergotism, but the effect’s the same. Leave him be.’
The helping hands that had been reaching out to the fallen man quickly withdrew. Fat Tony was the duly elected Authenticity Cop for the War-Band of Sigurd Bloodtooth (Smethwick chapter) and on matters of what was and wasn’t in period, his word was law. Why this should be, nobody was quite sure. Fat Tony was no historian: he’d joined the War-Band so as to be able to bash people with bits of metal without being arrested. Maybe it was because Fat Tony was big, and tended to find expression for his magnitude in belting people who disagreed with him. God, yes; there had been the time when the visiting British Museum lecturer had pointed out to Fat Tony that an outfit consisting of a home-spun cloak, baggy cross-gartered trousers, woollen tunic, stainless-steel mailshirt and Reeboks contained at least one gross anachronism. Afterwards, when the lecturer was fit enough to be discharged, they’d had to take him from the hospital to the station in a wheelbarrow.
‘More ale!’ someone thundered up at the top end of the table. ‘Ale! Ale!’
‘All right, hold your water,’ a female voice replied. ‘I’ll be with you in a jiff.’
Or maybe, Howard reflected, shoving a chunk of utterly authentic pork fat on to the edge of his trencher, maybe this is exactly how it was, and the only misapprehension is on the part of those who equate Valhalla with Heaven. For all he knew, the Norse afterlife for people who didn’t come to a bad end after a lifetime of killing and bullying was really rather pleasant: quiet and peaceful in a Laura Ashley sort of way, with books and bone china teacups and asparagus quiche and big handmade teddy bears . . .
‘Pass the mustard.’
Howard clicked out of his daydream and shoved the mustard pot down the table. Mustard wasn’t period, but Fat Tony wouldn’t eat boiled pork without it, so the Colmans pot was hidden inside an utterly authentic Norse drinking vessel, made out of what Howard devoutly hoped was a synthetic skull provided by Roddy the medical student. You lifted back the top jaw to reveal the mustard. The spoon stuck out through the left eye socket.
Having rejected the rest of his allocation of boiled pork, Howard poked about on his plate for something to eat. The only thing he recognised after a thorough excavation was a leek, and he spent a frustrating minute or so trying to find some way of transferring this to his face using only the permitted period utensil, a whacking great knife that looked like the sort of thing Captain Ahab would have used for cutting up whales. One of these days, he knew, he was going to slit open his own tongue like an envelope with the bloody thing. Whether that was likely to be worse than Fat Tony’s ordained punishment for eating with a fork during a banquet (‘Gosh,’ someone had said when he’d first announced it. ‘But are you sure it’d fit in there?’) he wasn’t sure and certainly didn’t want to find out.
‘You look miserable,’ said the man next to him. Howard moved his head forty degrees to the right and caught a glimpse of Martin the mortgage adviser in the narrow interstice between helmet and beard. ‘Have some more ale, cheer yourself up.’
Howard sighed impatiently. ‘It’s not ale,’ he said. ‘It’s Tesco’s own-brand lager. Not,’ he added quickly, ‘that I mind. Not in the least. It may not be authentic but at least it hasn’t got plankton living in it, like it would have done back then.’
‘Please yourself,’ Martin replied cheerfully, sloshing yellow fizz into his horn mug. ‘Nikki’s driving, so I’m all right.’
Now that’s the Society all over, Howard reflected. Killing, maiming, plundering, carousing and ravishing non-stop from half-past seven Friday night till teatime Sunday, but none of them would ever dream of breaking the law. That’s what makes it all a farce, not because someone shows up with a zip fly or a cloak the wrong shade of indigo. Modern people in primitive clothes are just modern people who look silly. He’d joined the Society because he hated being modern, because he was painfully and perpetually aware that he’d been born out of his time—
‘’Scuse me,’ someone a bit further down the table said. ‘Oh God, did it land in your lap?’
‘Christ. Sorry. Look, it will come out. Most of it.’
—not because he was a slob or a nutcase who believed that it was all right to behave like a wild animal and blame it on History. Even in the real Valhalla, surely, people didn’t go around doing - that - and then carry on blithely stuffing and swilling as if nothing had happened. It was wrong and unfair to assume that people in history were like that; on a par with saying that people who live in council houses wash their socks in the bog and pee in the sink.
‘You’re right,’ said the bloke on his left. ‘It wasn’t quite like this. For one thing, the wall hangings are the wrong colour.’
‘Of course this isn’t like the genuine Valhalla. For one thing, Valhalla wasn’t a galvanised steel barn seventy-five yards from the northbound carriageway of the M5. For another thing,’ Howard added with a slight scowl, ‘there was no real Valhalla. Even the real Valhalla wasn’t real.’
The bloke on the left - Howard couldn’t remember having seen him before - shook his head. ‘You reckon,’ he said.
Howard nodded. ‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘I do. Likewise, I don’t hang up a stocking for Santa any more, and I don’t believe in the Tooth Fairy. I’ve even heard a rumour that it isn’t really the stork who brings babies.’
‘So my son assures me,’ the stranger replied, ‘though I prefer to keep an open mind on the issue. True, it doesn’t bring babies round where I live, but maybe that’s because it’s got enough sense to realise that if it landed for more than half a second, some bugger would steal its wing-feathers. Don’t you want that bit of pork fat? No? Mind if I—?’
‘Go ahead,’ Howard replied. ‘You aren’t from round here, then?’
The stranger dipped his head by way of confirmation. ‘Just passing through,’ he said. ‘On business, you know.’
‘Ah,’ Howard said. Then, to make conversation, he added, ‘What line of work are you in, then?’
‘Personnel,’ the stranger replied. ‘Executive recruitment. I’m what they call a headhunter.’
‘Right.’ There was something in the way he’d said headhunter that Howard didn’t like. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, except that it brought to his mind a mental image of a violin-maker rattling a spoon against a saucer and calling out ‘Here, kitty, kitty!’ He impaled another short section of leek, but it toppled off the point of his dagger and landed in his lap. ‘Must be an interesting job,’ he added.
The stranger shrugged his unusually broad shoulders. ‘Not really,’ he said. ‘I mean, a job’s always a job, whether you’re a shelf-stacker in the Co-Op or a Hollywood director; it still comes down to rolling out of bed on a cold winter morning and knowing your day’s not your own. That said, I’d rather do my job than most others.’
‘Good money?’ Howard ventured, wondering why he was bothering with this conversation. ‘Promising career structure? Opportunities for travel?’
‘Perks,’ the stranger replied. ‘Well, perk singular. But one hell of a big one.’
The man grinned. ‘Oh yes. You don’t believe me, do you?’
Howard shook his head. ‘Not at all,’ he said. ‘Truth is, I don’t know the first thing about head—about executive recruitment. Obviously you do, so I’m happy to take your word for it.’
‘Listen,’ the man said, ‘never take anyone’s word for anything. Golden rule of life, that is. No, I’ve made a pretty sweeping claim, so let me prove it to you.’
‘Oh,’ Howard said. ‘Well, all right, then.’
‘Good. Now, watch carefully.’
So saying, the stranger took the large, sharp knife out of Howard’s hand and drew it across his own jugular vein with a swift, firm movement. Then, quickly, he clamped his own hand across the cut. Howard stared in horror; he could see little beads of blood welling out from between the man’s clasped fingers.
The man was counting.
‘Five,’ he said. ‘Six.’ He removed his hand, revealing a deep gash and a thick slush of blood that appeared to be trickling upwards, back into the wound. ‘Had to put my hand there,’ he explained, ‘else there’d have been a spurt of blood like a burst water-main. You’d have been soaked to the skin, and I’d never have got it all back in again. Now, do you agree that’s one hell of a perk?’
The thin smear of blood that had been messing up the blade of Howard’s dagger turned to a fine mist and sprayed itself neatly into the rapidly closing wound. The stranger leaned forward and used the knife to spear another gobbet of pork fat. ‘And the money’s not bad,’ he went on, ‘not marvellous but not bad. Only,’ he added, ‘there’s nowhere to spend it except in the Company shop. No, the immortality’s got to be the main thing about this business. Once you’ve got eternal life, everything else just sort of gets left behind; you grow out of caring about anything else, like kids grow out of playing at being soldiers.’
He handed the knife back to Howard, who took it point first. ‘Eeek,’ he exclaimed and came within an inch of dropping it on his toe.
‘Anyway,’ the stranger said, his mouth full of pork fat. ‘Now then, is that proof or would you rather I took off something bigger - let me see, bigger, bigger. Well now, what about my head? Might be a bit messy, but I defy you to stay sceptical. ’
‘For God’s sake,’ Howard hissed. ‘Look, who are you? CIA?’
The stranger frowned. ‘Isn’t that the big chain store where you buy those rather old-fashioned shirts?’ he said. ‘If it is, I’m insulted. Do I look like I stand behind a till all day?’
‘Please,’ Howard groaned, quickly sneaking a look to see if anybody else was watching. ‘I believe you, really I do. I’ll believe anything; just stop cutting yourself up like a self-propelled bacon-slicer.’
‘Whatever you say,’ the man replied. ‘Well, then, ready when you are.’
Howard would have got up and made a run for it if his legs hadn’t turned to spaghetti. ‘Ready? What for?’
‘The journey, of course.’ The man was holding his own knife now. ‘It’s a longish haul, so if you want to take a quick pee before we set off—’
‘Set off? Where?’
The man smiled agreeably; then, as he quickly shoved out the hand with the knife in it and buried the full length of the blade in Howard’s heart, added, ‘Where do you think, silly? Valhalla, of course.’
The four horsemen reined in their ghastly steeds, lowered their weapons and waited anxiously. The Great Beast curled up at their feet and started washing itself with its tongue. Behind them, the back-projection of burning cities and erupting volcanoes faded into white. On the ground, brimstone hissed as it cooled.
‘That’s it?’ said the man with the cigar.
The rider of the pale horse assured him that was it, and his face fell; he looked like he’d been expecting a more animated response. But the man with the cigar looked, if anything, slightly bored.
‘You’ve got something,’ he said. ‘Definitely you’ve got something. But to be honest with you, and unless I’m really, savagely honest I don’t see how I can help you guys - to be brutally, viciously honest, I don’t really see you people in comedy.’
The look of disappointment on the four horsemen’s faces would have melted most hearts; it was like watching a bunch of six-year-olds being told that Christmas had just been cancelled. But the man with the cigar had a heart that not even an oxyacetylene flame would melt. Rumour had it, in fact, that this had been proved by experiment on a number of occasions.
‘If I were you,’ the man went on, ‘I’d stick to what you know. Doing the End of the World, I can get you all the gigs you want - well, one gig, guaranteed. But comedy, you’ve got to work on it. Lighten up a little. Lose the Beast. Till then,’ he added, relighting the cigar on a puddle of molten lava, ‘don’t give up the Doomsday job. I’ll call you, okay?’
The horsemen nodded and trooped out, with the Beast trotting at their heels like Jurassic Park’s answer to a Yorkshire terrier. When they’d gone, the man shook his head sadly and sat down behind his desk. On the window above it was written
LIN KORTRIGHT SUPERNATURAL AGENCY
The telephone rang. Kortright scowled at it and frowned. He wasn’t really in the mood for listening patiently to the neurotic witterings of some of his clients, and he was tempted to let the answering machine pick up the messages while he put his feet up on the desk and tried to get his head together.
On the other hand, a significant proportion of his client base was made up of gods of one sort or another; pretending you aren’t in when the guy on the other end of the line is all-seeing and omniscient isn’t the best way to foster a close working relationship. He sighed, picked up the phone and tucked it in the slot between shoulder and jaw.
‘Hey, Zeus,’ Kortright said, as his face reverted to its default smile. ‘This is great, I was just about to call . . . Yes, I spoke to the Disney people, I . . . No. Basically, Zee, the bottom line is no, nada, forget it. Why? Why? Well, it’s very simple, my friend, you can’t sue Disney, they got better lawyers than you do, they can afford better lawyers . . . Hey, don’t give me that, man. I mean, you may be God Almighty, but they’re the fucking Disney Corporation . . . Yes, okay. Yes, I’ll talk to them again. There must be some way to sort this out to our mutual advantage. Yeah, you bet. Of course I’m here for you, Zee, that’s my entire purpose in life, you know that. Lunch? Well, actually, lunch is kinda hard for me this week—’
Suddenly his desk was covered in plates of food. An ice-cold magnum of champagne landed in his lap, making him wince sharply.
‘—Except,’ he continued smoothly, ‘Wednesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday. No, nothing I can’t put off. All right then, Friday. Yeah, you too, Zee. It’s been great talking. Ciao.’
- On Sale
- Sep 4, 2012
- Page Count
- 288 pages