You Don't Have to Be Evil to Work Here, But it Helps


By Tom Holt

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 A novel set in the magical offices of The Portable Door, now a majorly fantastical film starring Christoph Waltz, Sam Neill, and Miranda Otto.

“Tom Holt may be the most imaginative satirist to land on our shores since Douglas Adams.” — Christopher Moore, New York Times bestselling author

Colin Hollinghead is a young man going nowhere fast. Working for his dad might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but starting at the bottom in the widget-making industry has, predictably, lost its appeal. And now the business is in trouble.

At least his father has a plan to turn things around – a new work force that will improve profit margins and secure the company's future for all eternity. The deal looks great on paper, but they do say that the devil is in the detail – and the arch fiend definitely seems to be involved in some capacity. Colin needs help. Perhaps his new friend from J.W. Wells & Co. (Practical and Effective Magicians, Sorcerers and Supernatural Consultants) can help. . .

The J.W. Wells & Co. Series:
The Portable Door
In Your Dreams
Earth, Air, Fire and Custard
You Don't Have to Be Evil to Work Here, But It Helps
The Better Mousetrap
May Contain Traces of Magic

Other titles from Tom Holt:
When It's A Jar
The Outsorcerer's Apprentice
The Good, the Bad and the Smug
The Management Style of the Supreme Beings
An Orc on the Wild Side

Holt Writing as K. J. Parker:
Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City
How To Rule An Empire and Get Away With It
A Practical Guide to Conquering the World


Three weeks, and still nobody had the faintest idea who they were. There were rumours, of course: they were Americans, Germans, Russians, Japanese, an international consortium based in Ulan Bator, the Barclay brothers, Rupert Murdoch; they were white knights, asset strippers, the good guys, the bad guys, maybe even Kawaguchiya Integrated Circuits operating through a network of shells and holding companies designed to bypass US anti-trust legislation. Presumably the partners had some idea who they were, but Mr Wells hadn’t been seen around the office in weeks, Mr Suslowicz burst into tears if anybody raised the subject, and nobody was brave and stupid enough to ask Mr Tanner.
‘We bloody well ought to be able to figure it out for ourselves, ’ declared Connie Schwartz-Alberich from Mineral Rights, not for the first time. ‘I mean, it’s a small industry, the number of players is strictly limited. Only—’ She pulled a face. ‘Only I’ve been ringing round - people I know in other firms - and everybody seems just as confused as we are. You’d have thought someone would’ve heard something by now, but apparently not. It’s bloody frustrating.’
Thoughtful silence; a soft grunt of disgust from Peter Melznic as half of his dunked digestive broke off and flopped into his tea.
‘I still reckon it’s the Germans,’ said Benny Shumway, chief cashier. ‘Zauberkraftwerk or UMG. They’re the only ones big enough in Europe.’
‘Unlikely,’ muttered the thin-faced new girl from Entertainment and Media, whose name nobody could remember. ‘I worked for UMG for eighteen months - it’s not their style.’
For some reason, the new girl’s statements were always followed by an awkward silence, as though she’d just said something rude or obviously false. Unfortunate manner was the generally held explanation, but it didn’t quite ring true. Peter Melznic was on record as saying that she gave him the creeps - coming from Peter, that was quite an assertion - but even he was at a loss to explain exactly why.
‘I don’t think it’s anybody in the business,’ the new girl went on. ‘I think it’s someone completely new that none of us has ever heard of. Possibly,’ she added after a moment’s reflection, ‘Romanians. It’s just a feeling I have.’
‘I don’t care who it is,’ Connie Schwartz-Alberich lied, ‘so long as it’s not Harrison’s. I couldn’t stand the thought of having to take orders from that smug git Tony Harrison. He was a junior clerk here once, believe it or not, years ago.’
Benny Shumway frowned. ‘Is that right?’
Connie nodded. ‘It was just before I got sent out to the San Francisco office. He started off in mineral rights, same as everybody. He was an obnoxious little prick even then.’
Benny shrugged. ‘I don’t think it’s Harrison’s,’ he said. ‘I happen to know they’re in deep trouble right now. In fact, if it wasn’t for the bank bailing them out—’ He paused, and frowned. ‘Anyhow, it’s not them. Not,’ he added, standing up, ‘that it’s something we can do anything about. And so far, admit it, they’ve not been so bad.’
Connie snorted; Peter scowled; the new girl was staring in rapt fascination at a picture on the wall. She did things like that. Benny glanced at his watch and sighed. ‘Time I wasn’t here,’ he said.
Left alone with four empty mugs and her thoughts, Connie tried to get back to the job in hand, but she couldn’t concentrate. Benny had been right, of course. Whoever they were, they’d bought the company, and she and her colleagues went with the rest of the inventory, the desks, chairs, VDUs and stationery at valuation; it’d be entirely unrealistic to classify them as part of the goodwill. It was, she couldn’t help thinking, a funny old way to run a civilisation, but she’d become reconciled over the years to the fact that her consent was neither sought nor required. Five more years to retirement; a long time to hang on, but at her age she had no choice. Whoever they were, accordingly, they had her heart and mind.
Just for curiosity, she turned her head and looked at the picture, the one that had apparently fascinated the new girl. Poole Harbour, in watercolours, by Connie’s brother Norman. There was something odd about that girl, but for the life of her Connie couldn’t quite pin down what it was.
She picked up a stack of six-by-eight black-and-white glossy prints. Most people would’ve been hard-pressed to say whether they were modern art, the latest pictures of the surface of the Moon sent back by the space shuttle, close-ups of wood grain or the inside view of a careless photographer’s lens cap. She picked one off the top of the stack, closed her eyes and rested the palm of her hand on it. Harrison’s, she thought, and scowled.
The phone on Connie’s desk rang, startling her out of vague recollections of Tony Harrison as a junior clerk asking her in crimson embarrassment where the men’s bogs were. As she lifted her hand off the photograph to answer it, she noticed a faint cloud of moisture on the surface of the print. Ah, she thought, I must be worried.
‘Cassie for you.’
‘God,’ Connie sighed. ‘All right.’
The usual click, and then: ‘Connie?’
‘Cassie, dear.’
‘I’m stuck.’
‘What, again?’ Connie closed her eyes. I-will-not-be-brusque. I-was-young-and-feckless-once. No, she reflected; I was young, but I didn’t keep getting stuck all the bloody time. ‘Listen,’ she said pleasantly, ‘it’s just a tiny bit awkward at the moment, do you think you could possibly hang on there till lunch—?’
‘No,’ Cassie squeaked. ‘Look, I’m stuck, you’ve got to—’
‘All right,’ Connie sighed. ‘Tell me where you are, and I’ll come and get you.’
She wrote down the directions on her scratchpad, the corners and edges of which she’d earlier embellished with graceful doodles of entwined sea serpents. ‘Please hurry,’ Cassie pleaded urgently. ‘Sorry to be a pain, but—’
‘Be with you as soon as I can,’ Connie said, and put the phone down. Bugger, she thought. It was, of course, only natural that the younger woman should have chosen her as her guide, role model and mentor. Even so. She glanced down at the pile of prints; she could always take them home and do them this evening, it wasn’t as if she had anything else planned. Somehow, that reflection brought her little comfort. She stood up, took down her coat from behind the door, and left the room.
To get out of 70 St Mary Axe without (a) official leave (b) being seen by Mr Tanner, assuming you’re starting from the second floor back, you have to sneak across the landing into the computer room to the rear staircase. This will bring you out in the long corridor that curls round the ground floor like a python, and of course you’ll pass Mr Suslowicz’s door on your way. But that’s all right, because Cas Suslowicz—
‘Connie,’ said Mr Suslowicz, poking his head round his office door. ‘I was just coming to look for you.’
‘Ah,’ Connie replied.
‘You’re not busy right now, are you?’
Yes. ‘No,’ Connie said, in a neutral sort of voice. ‘I was just on my way to the library, as a matter of—’
‘You couldn’t do me a favour, could you?’
It was, always, the way he said it. You wouldn’t expect it to look at him; he had vast shoulders, gigantic round red cheeks and a dense black beard whose pointed tip brushed against the buckle of his trouser belt. Somehow, however, he managed to sound like a very small child who’s been separated from his parents at a fairground.
Cassie, stuck, awaiting her with frantic impatience. ‘Sure,’ she said, ‘what can I do for you?’
‘It’s these dratted specifications,’ said Mr Suslowicz; and Connie asked herself if she’d ever heard him use coarse or profane language. Buggered if she knew. ‘Some of it I can understand, but a lot of it’s horribly technical. It’d take me a week to look it all up, and even then I probably couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Do you think you could possibly—?’
‘Of course,’ Connie said brightly. ‘Get Nikki to leave it on my desk and I’ll look at it first thing after lunch.’
‘Ah.’ He could look so sad when he wanted to. ‘Actually, it’d be a tremendous help if you could just cast your eye over it terribly quickly now. I’ve got the client coming in at three, you see.’
Connie thought quickly. Poor stuck Cassie; but stuck, by definition, means not likely to be going anywhere in a hurry. And maybe, just possibly, having to wait an extra forty minutes might encourage her to look where she was going, the next time. ‘No problem,’ Connie said. (And she thought: just five years to go, and then they can all get stuck permanently, with or without reams of incomprehensible technical jargon, and it won’t be any of my concern.) ‘How’s your back, by the way?’
‘Much better,’ Mr Suslowicz replied. ‘My own silly fault, of course. I just can’t get used to the fact that I’m not able to do the kind of stuff I could handle twenty years ago.’ He grinned sheepishly - he must have stupendous lip muscles, Connie reflected, in order to lift that bloody great big beard - and held the door for her.
One glance at the wodge of single-spaced typescript reassured Connie that Cas wasn’t just being feeble. It was pretty advanced stuff, all about atomic densities and molecular structures, and she was rather proud of the fact that she could understand it. Explaining it, on the other hand—‘Quite a job you’ve got on here,’ she said. ‘New client?’
Cas nodded; she managed not to look at the tip of his beard massaging his crotch. ‘Quite a catch, if we can keep him happy,’ he said. ‘Hence the urgency.’
Connie avoided his gaze. ‘Friends of the new management?’ she asked, trying and failing to sound casual.
‘Yes and no.’
She waited a full half-second, then said, ‘Ah’ and turned her attention back to the technical drivel. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it’s like this. Imagine the Einsteinian spatio-temporal universe is a globe artichoke—’
Whether or not Cas really understood what she’d endeavoured to explain to him, he let her go an hour later, thanking her profusely and apologising for taking up so much of her time. That was the infuriating thing about Cas Suslowicz, she thought, as she hurtled toward the front office. There ought to be a law, or something in the European Declaration of Human Rights, about bosses not being allowed to be nice. It went against a thousand years of tradition in the field of British industrial relations. Of course, she reminded herself as she pushed through the fire door, Cas Suslowicz is nominally Polish—
‘Early lunch?’ snapped the girl behind the reception desk. She was slight, slim, blue-eyed, red-haired and to all appearances not a day over twenty-two. She was also Mr Tanner’s mother.
‘Don’t talk to me about lunch,’ Connie countersnapped. No chance of even a fleeting sandwich, if she had to go and unstick Cassie and be back in the office by two p.m. The explanation wasn’t, however, something that she could share with a boss’s mother. ‘If Tillotsons call, take a message,’ she added, and lunged out into the street.
Poor stuck Cassie - Connie scowled. Impossible, in the circumstances, to take a taxi to Charing Cross and put in a pink expenses chit to get the money back off the firm; which meant that either she’d have to pay for a taxi out of her own money, or take the slow but cheaper Tube. Well, she thought; Cassie’s been there a fair old while already, another twenty minutes won’t kill her. As a sop to her conscience, Connie increased her pace to a swiftish march (new shoes, heel-tips not yet ground down to comfortable stubs). Halfway down St Mary Axe, however, someone called out her name and she stopped.
‘Connie Schwartz-Alberich,’ he repeated. ‘You haven’t got a clue who I am, have you?’
He was short, slim, thin on top, glasses, fifty-whatever; Burton’s suit, birthday-present tie. His voice, however, came straight from somewhere else, long ago and very far away. It couldn’t be.
He grinned. Voices and grins don’t decay the way other externals do. ‘Hellfire, Connie,’ he said, ‘you haven’t changed a bit.’
‘Balls,’ she replied demurely. ‘You have, though.’
‘True.’ He frowned. ‘I was going to say, fancy meeting you here, but—’ His frown deepened. ‘Don’t say you’re still stuck at JWW.’
‘My God.’ He shrugged. ‘Why?’
‘Too old to get a decent job, of course. How about you? Still at M&F?’
He laughed. ‘Not likely,’ he said. ‘I went freelance - what, fifteen years ago. Got my own consultancy now.’
‘Doing all right?’
‘I guess so.’ His grin made it obvious that he was being modest. For over a second and a half, Connie hated him to death. ‘Better than the old days, anyhow. Look, is it your lunch hour, or can you skive off whatever you’re doing?’
Poor Cassie, stuck; on the other hand, George Katzbalger, apparently returned from the dead. ‘Oh, go on,’ she said. ‘Let’s go and have a pizza.’
He looked puzzled. ‘A what?’
‘Pi—’ She remembered one of the salient facts about George. ‘You choose,’ she said.
‘Pleasure. There’s this really rather good little Uzbek place just round the corner. Know it?’
‘Big bowls of rice with little bits of stuff in it.’
‘Yes, all right. But I can’t be too long, I’ve got to go and rescue someone before one-fifteen at the latest.’
George shrugged. ‘No problem,’ he said. ‘So,’ he went on, as he fell into step beside her, ‘how long’s it been, since New York?’
Connie did the maths. ‘Twenty years, I suppose,’ she said.
‘Can’t be. My God.’ He sighed. ‘And you’re still with JWW. Is it true, by the way, what I’ve been hearing?’
‘That depends on what it is,’ she said quietly.
‘About the takeover.’
‘Ah.’ She smiled. ‘So what have you been hearing, exactly?’
Yet another salient fact about George: he always knew less than he thought he did about everything. So, over the rice with little bits of stuff in, Connie learned that J. W. Wells & Co, the oldest established firm in its field, had been having a rough time of it lately - four of the seven partners dead or in permanent exile, public confidence shattered, client base uncertain, the corporate hyenas prowling - and had finally succumbed to an aggressive hostile takeover by an undisclosed buyer. Unfortunately, she knew all that already, and George hadn’t heard anything else apart from the kind of vague rumour she’d been swapping with the others over coffee an hour or so earlier. Annoyed, she let George pay for lunch and scuttled off to do whatever it was she’d been on her way to do when she’d bumped into him—
Ah, yes. Unstick Cassie. Connie sighed. One damn thing after another.
In Mortlake, where the shadows lie, the small family business of Hollingshead and Farren have been making small, intricate brass widgets for the plumbing, heating and hydraulic industries practically since the dawn of widget-making in the United Kingdom. Put an H&F widget in the hands of a skilled engineer who truly loves his craft and he’ll recognise it at once; most likely he’ll comment lovingly on its beautiful lines and exquisite quality of manufacture before pointing out that you can get something nearly as good and made in China for a fifth of the price. Even so, the old firm is still there, pouring, fettling and machining its small brass miracles; and although the Farrens have long since died out or gone away, the Hollingsheads remain: father, two uncles, six cousins and one son, Colin.
‘And when you’ve done that,’ Dad had said at breakfast, ‘you can nip down to Crinkell’s and pick up those end-mills.’
‘Fine,’ Colin had replied. ‘Can I take the car?’
‘No, I’m using it. Walk’ll do you good. And you can drop in Boots while you’re passing and get me some of those heartburn pills.’
Not for the first time, Colin reflected as he trudged down the High Street, collar folded up against the rain, that it really wasn’t fair that he didn’t have a car of his own any more. True, the business wasn’t doing as well as it should have been, and times were hard, and if he absolutely needed a car for something he could always borrow the Daimler, if Dad wasn’t using it. Even so. He’d been fond of his perky little Datsun, and they’d got next to nothing for it when it was sold.
Preoccupied with these reflections, Colin was almost through the door of Boots before he noticed it was Boots no longer. Instead, it had at some point turned into a John Menzies. He went in anyway and bought a refill for his pen (a Christmas present from Uncle Phil; it hurt the tip of his middle finger, but you don’t want to give offence). That, and a detour to Tesco (who did a practically identical heartburn tablet in a slightly different-coloured box) explained his late arrival at the meeting, which he’d forgotten all about.
It turned out to be the sort of meeting that he’d cheerfully have missed altogether. There was a grim man from the bank, and an equally forbidding-looking woman from the accountants; also some sort of lawyer and a young woman whose name and function Colin didn’t quite catch, but what the hell; from context he assumed her to be another species of commercial vulture, wheeling by invitation over the moribund carcass at seventy-five pounds per hour plus VAT.
‘The bottom line is,’ the man from the bank was saying, ‘unless you can find a way to compete with low-cost imports—’
Colin tuned out. The same man, or someone very like him, had said the same thing at the same time last year, and the year before that, and just because something’s unpleasant and true it doesn’t necessarily mean that it makes for gripping listening. He glanced across the table at the unspecified young woman. Her name, he remembered from the round of cursory introductions, was Cassandra something, and she was rather nice-looking; not that that signified, since it’s hard to take a romantic interest in a scavenger who’s about to strip the residual flesh off your atrophied remains. Assuming she was a vulture, of course, but it was probably a safe bet. Unless she was a fabulously wealthy widget collector who wanted a hundred thousand 67/Bs by next Thursday, chances were she wasn’t there to make things better.
Odd about Boots, he thought. Maybe they’re feeling the pinch too. Colin wasn’t inclined to take the withering and perishing of H&F personally, since he hadn’t been working for the company very long (he’d wanted to go to university and learn to be a vet, but Dad wouldn’t hear of it), but he felt sorry for the rest of them - Dad, Uncle Chris, Uncle Phil, the cousins. If Boots was also finishing off its hearty breakfast while the hang-man tested the drop mechanism in the prison yard below, at the very least it implied that the hard times were general, and accordingly it wasn’t really anybody’s fault.
‘Anyway,’ said the accountant, ‘that’s more or less the position. Unless you can increase turnover by at least twenty-five per cent over the next three months, or else cut costs by forty-two per cent—’
How old can you be, Colin wondered, and still train to be a vet? All he actually knew about the profession was what he’d gleaned from repeats of All Creatures Great & Small, and the hero in that had been, what, about his age (but you can’t tell with actors, of course, they’ve got make-up and all sorts). The careers bloke at school had said he needed all sorts of A levels and stuff, and he’d left as soon as he was legally able to do so, and had come here to start at the bottom and work his way up in the customary fashion. As it was, he’d started at the bottom and more or less stayed there, partly through lack of the killer instinct needed to get on in modern commerce, partly because there wasn’t anywhere up for him to go until either Dad, Uncle Chris, Uncle Phil or one of the cousins decided to call it a day. A bit of a waste of time, he couldn’t help reflecting, these past few years. His fault? Well, most things proverbially were, but in this case, not everything. If Dad had been a little bit more broad-minded, his life could have been quite different at this point. He could have been standing up to his knees in mud with his arm up a cow’s backside, if only he’d been given a decent chance.
‘I think that’s more or less covered everything,’ Dad was saying (and Colin couldn’t help thinking of a man in a black suit drawing a cloth over the corpse’s face). ‘Thank you all for your time, and obviously we’ll be in touch as soon as we’ve reached our decision.’
The vultures spread their wings; all except the nice-looking Cassandra female, who followed Dad into his office. No summons for Colin to follow, so he wandered slowly back to his own miniature lair, crept in behind the desk (he was slim going on scrawny, but he still had to breathe in), stacked his feet on top of the Albion Plastic Extrusions file, and allowed himself to slither into a reverie of petulant thought.
It was all very well cramming his mental screen with images of Christopher Timothy saving the elderly farmer’s beloved sheep-dog, but assuming he wasn’t ever going to be a vet after all, what was he going to do with his life once Hollingshead and Farren went under? The accountant, he remembered, had been ferociously upbeat about certain aspects of the disaster. The freehold of the factory and warehouse, he’d pointed out, would pay off the debts and redundancies and leave a nice fat lump sum over to provide for Dad and the uncles in the autumn of their lives. That, however, was more or less it as far as comfort and joy were concerned. The machinery had a modest value as scrap iron, maybe enough to pay the accountant’s hourly rate for telling them it was otherwise worthless. The patents were about to expire anyway, the office equipment was a joke, and the best thing to do with the Daimler was to leave it parked temptingly in the street and hope a joyrider with an antiquarian bent might take it away and crash it into something solid. The men would be paid off, of course, and that would be that. Apart from one loose end, behind whose desk he was currently sitting. Nobody had ventured any suggestions as to what might be done with him. Like it mattered.
Colin frowned. As a general rule, he didn’t do self-pity. Looked at from another perspective, he was tolerably young, more or less healthy and not a complete idiot, and after a childhood and early adulthood spent chained to the widgetsmith’s bench he was free to do whatever the hell he liked. Not so much a disaster, therefore, as an opportunity in fuck-up’s clothing.
Opportunity; he considered the concept objectively. To date, opportunities had mostly been things offered to Colin via e-mail by benevolent Nigerian lawyers. Otherwise, he had always followed a path ordained for him by those who knew better - and a pretty narrow track it had been, running straight through a small and circumscribed world consisting mostly of rather boring work and running errands for senior family members. There had always been an undeniable logic to all of it, of course. Why should he want to move out to a place of his own when the family home was only a minute’s walk from the factory gate? What did he need a car for? What conceivable purpose would be served by him spending a year backpacking round the Andes, given that the entire Latin American widget market was sewn up by the big US manufacturers? Furthermore, whence had he got the curious idea that he had time to go running around after girls when there were inventories to be made and quality to be controlled? Over the years, widget-making had been held up to him as a combination of Holy Grail, family curse and closed monastic order. Without it, the world would be a big, strange, interesting place, even if his role in it was as yet poorly defined.
Besides (he shifted his feet, nudging Albion Plastic Extrusions off the desk onto the floor) it was by no means certain that the old firm was even dead yet. This time last year, they’d been squinting down the twin barrels of an empty order book and a catastrophic tax demand; then, just as the doctor’s finger had been quivering over the life-support machine’s off switch, some lunatic in Newport Pagnell had bespoken a quarter of a million J/778c-30s, payment fifty per cent in advance. In due course he’d paid for and taken delivery of his widgets, and nobody had seen or heard of him again. If there was one such loopy philanthropist in the world, why not another? Maybe even now he was stuffing a cheque into an envelope, a crazed look on his face and a lampshade balanced on top of his head in place of a hat.
Enough about that, then; Colin let the unruly Highland terrier of his mind off the lead and let it chase pigeons through the bushes of more enticing improbabilities. The nice-looking female at the meeting, for instance. When the other suits had buggered off to shake their heads and pad their bills, she’d stayed behind to talk to the old man. What was she, then? Some business-school whizz-kid or efficiency guru, come to set them all to rights? Hadn’t looked the type, although Colin freely conceded that he hadn’t a clue what the type was supposed to look like. Not a customer, or we wouldn’t have been giving her a guided tour of the dirty laundry. For the same reasons, not a creditor. So: apart from clients, people we owe money to and charcoal-grey-clad leeches, who the hell else do we know? Nobody.


  • "Wacky humour bubbles through the polished narrative ... Holt doesn't skimp on the flashes of brilliance."—SFX
  • "Uniquely twisted ... cracking gags."—The Guardian
  • "Dazzling."—Time Out
  • "Highly amusing ... Eloquently snarky prose."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Holt is, as usual, absurd, funny, and light-handed enough with the completely ridiculous bits to keep the story moving, assuring that the reader doesn't actually notice how bizarre the story has become, or how tangled the mystery is, until it's nearly done."—Booklist
  • "A definite must for all fans of comic fantasy."—ENIGMA
  • "Frothy, fast and funny."—Scotland on Sunday
  • "Frantically wacky and wilfully confusing ... gratifyingly clever and very amusing."—Mail on Sunday
  • "Tom Holt's comic fantasy is a great, uplifting read, fit to grace any reader's book collection."—Waterstones Books Quarterly

On Sale
Sep 4, 2012
Page Count
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.

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