Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

  "And as for what Kate's up to, Susan, well, I can't hide the fact that I get anxious at the salaries and computer time it's eating up. Important long-term research and development it might be, but there is also the possibility, only a possibility, I'm saying, but nevertheless a possibility which I think we owe it to ourselves fully to evaluate and explore, which is that it's a lemon. That's odd, there's a noise coming from the boot, I thought I'd just closed it properly.

  "Anyway, the main thing's Richard. And the point is that there's only one person who's really in a position to know if he's getting the important work done, or if he's just dreaming, and that one person is, I'm afraid, Susan.

  "That's you, I mean, of course, not secretary Susan at the office.

  "So can you, I don't like to ask you this, I really don't, can you really get on his case? Make him see how important it is? Just make sure he realises that WayForward Technologies is meant to be an expanding commercial business, not an adventure playground for crunch--heads. That's the problem with crunch-heads--they have one great idea that actually works and then they expect you to carry on funding them for years while they sit and calculate the topographies of their navels. I'm sorry, I'm going to have to stop and close the boot properly. Won't be a moment."

  He put the telephone down on the seat beside him, pulled over on to the grass verge, and got out. As he went to the boot, it opened, a figure rose out of it, shot him through the chest with both barrels of a shotgun and then went about its business.

  Gordon Way's astonishment at being suddenly shot dead was nothing to his astonishment at what happened next.



  "Come in, dear fellow, come in."

  The door to Reg's set of rooms in college was up a winding set of wooden stairs in the corner of Second Court, and was not well lit, or rather it was perfectly well lit when the light was working, but the light was not working, so the door was not well lit and was, furthermore, locked. Reg was having difficulty in finding the key from a collection which looked like something that a fit Ninja warrior could hurl through the trunk of a tree.

  Rooms in the older parts of the college have double doors, like airlocks, and like airlocks they are fiddly to open. The outer door is a sturdy slab of grey painted oak, with no features other than a very narrow slit for letters, and a Yale lock, to which suddenly Reg at last found the key.

  He unlocked it and pulled it open. Behind it lay an ordinary white--panelled door with an ordinary brass doorknob.

  "Come in, come in," repeated Reg, opening this and fumbling for the light switch. For a moment only the dying embers of a fire in the stone grate threw ghostly red shadows dancing around the room, but then electric light flooded it and extinguished the magic. Reg hesitated on the threshold for a moment, oddly tense, as if wishing to be sure of something before he entered, then bustled in with at least the appearance of cheeriness.

  It was a large panelled room, which a collection of gently shabby furniture contrived to fill quite comfortably. Against the far wall stood a large and battered old mahogany table with fat ugly legs, which was laden with books, files, folders and teetering piles of papers. Standing in its own space on the desk, Richard was amused to note, was actually a battered old abacus.

  There was a small Regency writing desk standing nearby which might have been quite valuable had it not been knocked about so much, also a couple of elegant Georgian chairs, a portentous Victorian bookcase, and so on. It was, in short, a don's room. It had a don's framed maps and prints on the walls a threadbare and faded don's carpet on the floor, and it looked as if little had changed in it for decades, which was probably the case because a don lived in it.

  Two doors led out from either end of the opposite wall, and Richard knew from previous visits that one led to a study which looked much like a smaller and more intense version of this room--larger clumps of books, taller piles of paper in more imminent danger of actually falling, furniture which, however old and valuable, was heavily marked with myriad rings of hot tea or coffee cups, on many of which the original cups themselves were probably still standing.

  The other door led to a small and rather basically equipped kitchen, and a twisty internal staircase at the top of which lay the Professor's bedroom and bathroom.

  "Try and make yourself comfortable on the sofa," invited Reg, fussing around hospitably. "I don't know if you'll manage it. It always feels to me as if it's been stuffed with cabbage leaves and cutlery." He peered at Richard seriously. "Do you have a good sofa?" he enquired.

  "Well, yes." Richard laughed. He was cheered by the silliness of the question.

  "Oh," said Reg solemnly. "Well, I wish you'd tell me where you got it. I have endless trouble with them, quite endless. Never found a comfortable one in all my life. How do you find yours?" He encountered, with a slight air of surprise, a small silver tray he had left out with a decanter of port and three glasses.

  "Well, it's odd you should ask that," said Richard. "I've never sat on it."

  "Very wise," insisted Reg earnestly, "very, very wise." He went through a palaver similar to his previous one with his coat and hat.

  "Not that I wouldn't like to," said Richard. "It's just that it's stuck halfway up a long flight of stairs which leads up into my flat. As far as I can make it out, the delivery men got it part way up the stairs, got it stuck, turned it around any way they could, couldn't get it any further, and then found, curiously enough, that they couldn't get it back down again. Now, that should be impossible."

  "Odd," agreed Reg. "I've certainly never come across any irreversible mathematics involving sofas. Could be a new field. Have you spoken to any spatial geometricians?"

  "I did better than that. I called in a neighbour's kid who used to be able to solve Rubik's cube in seventeen seconds. He sat on a step and stared at it for over an hour before pronouncing it irrevocably stuck. Admittedly he's a few years older now and has found out about girls, but it's got me puzzled."

  "Carry on talking, my dear fellow, I'm most interested, but let me know first if there's anything I can get you. Port perhaps? Or brandy? The port I think is the better bet, laid down by the college in 1934, one of the finest vintages I think you'll find, and on the other hand I don't actually have any brandy. Or coffee? Some more wine perhaps? There's an excellent Margaux I've been looking for an excuse to open, though it should of course be allowed to stand open for an hour or two, which is not to say that I couldn't... no," he said hurriedly, "probably best not to go for the Margaux tonight."

  "Tea is what I would really like," said Richard, "if you have some."

  Reg raised his eyebrows. "Are you sure?"

  "I have to drive home."

  "Indeed. Then I shall be a moment or two in the kitchen. Please carry on, I shall still be able to hear you. Continue to tell me of your sofa, and do feel free in the meantime to sit on mine. Has it been stuck there for long?"

  "Oh, only about three weeks," said Richard, sitting down. "I could just saw it up and throw it away, but I can't believe that there isn't a logical answer. And it also made me think--it would be really useful to know before you buy a piece of furniture whether it's actually going to fit up the stairs or around the corner. So I've modelled the problem in three dimensions on my computer--and so far it just says no way."

  "It says what?" called Reg, over the noise of filling the kettle.

  "That it can't be done. I told it to compute the moves necessary to get the sofa out, and it said there aren't any. I said "What?" and it said there aren't any. I then asked it, and this is the really mysterious thing, to compute the moves necessary to get the sofa into its present position in the first place, and it said that it couldn't have got there. Not without fundamental restructuring of the walls. So, either there's something wrong with the fundamental structure of the matter in my walls or," he added with a sigh, "there's something wrong with the program. Which would you guess?"

  "And are you married?" called Reg.

at? Oh, I see what you mean. A sofa stuck on the stairs for a month. Well, no, not married as such, but yes, there is a specific girl that I'm not married to."

  "What's she like? What does she do?"

  "She's a professional cellist. I have to admit that the sofa has been a bit of a talking point. In fact she's moved back to her own flat until I get it sorted out. She, well..."

  He was suddenly sad, and he stood up and wandered around the room in a desultory sort of way and ended up in front of the dying fire. He gave it a bit of a poke and threw on a couple of extra logs to try and ward off the chill of the room.

  "She's Gordon's sister, in fact," he added at last. "But they are very different. I'm not sure she really approves of computers very much. And she doesn't much like his attitude to money. I don't think I entirely blame her, actually, and she doesn't know the half of it."

  "Which is the half she doesn't know?"

  Richard sighed.

  "Well," he said, "it's to do with the project which first made the software incarnation of the company profitable. It was called Reason, and in its own way it was sensational."

  "What was it?"

  "Well, it was a kind of back-to-front program. It's funny how many of the best ideas are just an old idea back-to-front. You see there have already been several programs written that help you to arrive at decisions by properly ordering and analysing all the relevant facts so that they then point naturally towards the right decision. The drawback with these is that the decision which all the properly ordered and analysed facts point to is not necessarily the one you want."

  "Yeeeess..." said Reg's voice from the kitchen.

  "Well, Gordon's great insight was to design a program which allowed you to specify in advance what decision you wished it to reach, and only then to give it all the facts. The program's task, which it was able to accomplish with consummate ease, was simply to construct a plausible series of logical-sounding steps to connect the premises with the conclusion.

  "And I have to say that it worked brilliantly. Gordon was able to buy himself a Porsche almost immediately despite being completely broke and a hopeless driver. Even his bank manager was unable to find fault with his reasoning. Even when Gordon wrote it off three weeks later."

  "Heavens. And did the program sell very well?"

  "No. We never sold a single copy."

  "You astonish me. It sounds like a real winner to me."

  "It was," said Richard hesitantly. "The entire project was bought up, lock, stock and barrel, by the Pentagon. The deal put WayForward on a very sound financial foundation. Its moral foundation, on the other hand, is not something I would want to trust my weight to. I've recently been analysing a lot of the arguments put forward in favour of the Star Wars project, and if you know what you're looking for, the pattern of the algorithms is very clear.

  "So much so, in fact, that looking at Pentagon policies over the last couple of years I think I can be fairly sure that the US Navy is using version 2.00 of the program, while the Air Force for some reason only has the beta-test version of 1.5. Odd, that."

  "Do you have a copy?"

  "Certainly not," said Richard, "I wouldn't have anything to do with it. Anyway, when the Pentagon bought everything, they bought everything. Every scrap of code, every disk, every notebook. I was glad to see the back of it. If indeed we have. I just busy myself with my own projects."

  He poked at the fire again and wondered what he was doing here when he had so much work on. Gordon was on at him continually about getting the new, super version of Anthem ready for taking advantage of the Macintosh II, and he was well behind with it. And as for the proposed module for converting incoming Dow Jones stock-market information into MIDI data in real time, he'd only meant that as a joke, but Gordon, of course, had flipped over the idea and insisted on its being implemented. That too was meant to be ready but wasn't. He suddenly knew exactly why it was he was here.

  Well, it had been a pleasant evening, even if he couldn't see why Reg had been quite so keen to see him. He picked up a couple of books from the table. The table obviously doubled as a dining table, because although the piles looked as if they had been there for weeks, the absence of dust immediately around them showed that they had been moved recently.

  Maybe, he thought, the need for amiable chit-chat with someone different can become as urgent as any other need when you live in a community as enclosed as a Cambridge college was, even nowadays. He was a likeable old fellow, but it was clear from dinner that many of his colleagues found his eccentricities formed rather a rich sustained diet--particularly when they had so many of their own to contend with. A thought about Susan nagged him, but he was used to that. He flipped through the two books he'd picked up.

  One of them, an elderly one, was an account of the hauntings of Borley Rectory, the most haunted house in England. Its spine was getting raggedy, and the photographic plates were so grey and blurry as to be virtually indistinguishable. A picture he thought must be a very lucky (or faked) shot of a ghostly apparition turned out, when he examined the caption, to be a portrait of the author.

  The other book was more recent, and by an odd coincidence was a guide to the Greek islands. He thumbed through it idly and a piece of paper fell out.

  "Earl Grey or Lapsang Souchong?" called out Reg. "Or Darjeeling? Or PG Tips? It's all tea bags anyway, I'm afraid. And none of them very fresh."

  "Darjeeling will do fine," replied Richard, stooping to pick up the piece of paper.

  "Milk?" called Reg.

  "Er, please."

  "One lump or two?"

  "One, please."

  Richard slipped the paper back into the book, noticing as he did so that it had a hurriedly scribbled note on it. The note said, oddly enough, "Regard this simple silver salt cellar. Regard this simple hat."


  "Er, what?" said Richard, startled. He put the book hurriedly back on the pile.

  "Just a tiny joke of mine," said Reg cheerily, "to see if people are listening." He emerged beaming from the kitchen carrying a small tray with two cups on it, which he hurled suddenly to the floor. The tea splashed over the carpet. One of the cups shattered and the other bounced under the table. Reg leaned against the door frame, white-faced and staring.

  A frozen instant of time slid silently by while Richard was too startled to react, then he leaped awkwardly forward to help. But the old man was already apologising and offering to make him another cup. Richard helped him to the sofa.

  "Are you all right?" asked Richard helplessly. "Shall I get a doctor?"

  Reg waved him down. "It's all right," he insisted, "I'm perfectly well. Thought I heard, well, a noise that startled me. But it was nothing. Just overcome with the tea fumes, I expect. Let me just catch my breath. I think a little, er, port will revive me excellently. So sorry, I didn't mean to startle you." He waved in the general direction of the port decanter. Richard hurriedly poured a small glass and gave it to him.

  "What kind of noise?" he asked, wondering what on earth could shock him so much.

  At that moment came the sound of movement upstairs and an extraordinary kind of heavy breathing noise.

  "That..." whispered Reg. The glass of port lay shattered at his feet. Upstairs someone seemed to be stamping. "Did you hear it?"

  "Well, yes."

  This seemed to relieve the old man.

  Richard looked nervously up at the ceiling. "Is there someone up there?" he asked, feeling this was a lame question, but one that had to be asked.

  "No," said Reg in a low voice that shocked Richard with the fear it carried, "no one. Nobody that should be there."


  Reg was struggling shakily to his feet, but there was suddenly a fierce determination about him.

  "I must go up there," he said quietly. "I must. Please wait for me here."

  "Look, what is this?" demanded Richard, standing between Reg and the doorway. "What is it, a burglar? Look, I'll go. I'm sure it's nothing, it's just
the wind or something." Richard didn't know why he was saying this. It clearly wasn't the wind, or even anything like the wind, because though the wind might conceivably make heavy breathing noises, it rarely stamped its feet in that way.

  "No," the old man said, politely but firmly moving him aside, "it is for me to do."

  Richard followed him helplessly through the door into the small hallway, beyond which lay the tiny kitchen. A dark wooden staircase led up from here; the steps seemed damaged and scuffed.

  Reg turned on a light. It was a dim one that hung naked at the top of the stairwell, and he looked up it with grim apprehension.

  "Wait here," he said, and walked up two steps. He then turned and faced Richard with a look of the most profound seriousness on his face.

  "I am sorry," he said, "that you have become involved in what is... the more difficult side of my life. But you are involved now, regrettable though that may be, and there is something I must ask you. I do not know what awaits me up there, do not know exactly. I do not know if it is something which I have foolishly brought upon myself with my... my hobbies, or if it is something to which I have fallen an innocent victim. If it is the former, then I have only myself to blame, for I am like a doctor who cannot give up smoking, or perhaps worse still, like an ecologist who cannot give up his car--if the latter, then I hope it may not happen to you.

  "What I must ask you is this. When I come back down these stairs, always supposing of course that I do, then if my behaviour strikes you as being in any way odd, if I appear not to be myself, then you must leap on me and wrestle me to the ground. Do you understand? You must prevent me from doing anything I may try to do."

  "But how will I know?" asked an incredulous Richard. "Sorry I don't mean it to sound like that, but I don't know what...?"

  "You will know," said Reg. "Now please wait for me in the main room. And close the door."

  Shaking his head in bewilderment, Richard stepped back and did as he was asked. From inside the large untidy room he listened to the sound of the Professor's tread mounting the stairs one at a time.

  He mounted them with a heavy deliberation, like the ticking of a great, slow clock.

  Richard heard him reach the top landing. There he paused in silence. Seconds went by, five, maybe ten, maybe twenty. Then came again the heavy movement and breath that had first so harrowed the Professor.

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