The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams

  Did he, Anstey (the client's name was Anstey, an odd, intense man in his mid-thirties with staring eyes, a narrow yellow tie and one of the big houses in Lupton Road; Dirk hadn't actually liked him very much and thought he looked as if he was trying to swallow a fish), did he know that 67 per cent of all known murderers, who expressed a preference, had had liver and bacon for lunch? And that another 22 per cent had been torn between either a prawn biryani or anomelette? That dispensed with 89 per cent of the threat at a stroke, and by the time you had further discounted the salad eaters and the turkey and ham sandwich munchers and started to look at the number of people who would contemplate such a course of action without any lunch at all, then you were well into the realms of negligibility and bordering on fantasy.

  After two-thirty, but nearer to three o'clock, was when you had to start being on your guard. Seriously. Even on good days. Even when you weren't receiving death threats from strange gigantic men with green eyes, you had to watch people like a hawk after the lunching hour. The really dangerous time was after four o'clockish, when the streets began to fill up with marauding packs of publishers and agents, maddened with fettuccine and kir and baying for cabs. Those were the times that tested men's souls. Six-thirty in the morning? Forget it. Dirk had.

  With his resolve well stiffened Dirk stepped back out of the newsagent's into the nippy air of the street and strode off.

  "Ah, I expect you'll be wanting to pay for that paper, then, won't you, Mr Dirk, sir?" said the newsagent, trotting gently after him.

  "Ah, Bates," said Dirk loftily, "you and your expectations. Always expecting this and expecting that. May I recommend serenity to you? A life that is burdened with expectations is a heavy life. Its fruit is sorrow and disappointment. Learn to be one with the joy of the moment."

  "I think it's twenty pence that one, sir," said Bates, tranquilly.

  "Tell you what I'll do, Bates, seeing as it's you. Do you have a pen on you at all? A simple ball-point will suffice."

  Bates produced one from an inner pocket and handed it to Dirk, who then tore off the corner of the paper on which the price was printed and scribbled "IOU" above it. He handed the scrap of paper to the newsagent.

  "Shall I put this with the others, then, sir?"

  "Put it wherever it will give you the greatest joy, dear Bates, I would want you to put it nowhere less. For now, dear man, farewell."

  "I expect you'll be wanting to give me back my pen as well Mr Dirk."

  "When the times are propitious for such a transaction, my dear Bates," said Dirk, "you may depend upon it. For the moment, higher purposes call it. Joy, Bates, great joy. Bates, please let go of it."

  After one last listless tug, the little man shrugged and padded back towards his shop.

  "I expect I'll be seeing you later, then, Mr Dirk," he called out over his shoulder, without enthusiasm.

  Dirk gave a gracious bow of his head to the man's retreating back, and then hurried on, opening the newspaper at the horoscope page as he did so.

  "Virtually everything you decide today will be wrong," it said bluntly.

  Dirk slapped the paper shut with a grunt. He did not for a second hold with the notion that great whirling lumps of rock light years away knew something about your day that you didn't. It just so happened that "The Great Zaganza" was an old friend of his who knew when Dirk's birthday was, and always wrote his column deliberately to wind him up. The paper's circulation had dropped by nearly a twelfth since he had taken over doing the horoscope, and only Dirk and The Great Zaganza knew why.

  He hurried on, flapping his way quickly through the rest of the paper. As usual, there was nothing interesting. A lot of stuff about the search for Janice Smith, the missing airline girl from Heathrow, and how she could possibly have disappeared just like that. They printed the latest picture of her, which was on a swing with pigtails, aged six. Her father, a Mr Jim Pearce, was quoted as saying it was quite a good likeness, but she had grown up a lot now and was usually in better focus. Impatiently, Dirk tucked the paper under his arm and strode onwards, his thoughts on a much more interesting topic.

  Three hundred pounds a day. Plus expenses.

  He wondered how long he could reasonably expect to sustain in Mr Anstey his strange delusions that he was about to be murdered by a seven foot tall, shaggy-haired creature with huge green eyes and horns, who habitually waved things at him: a contract written in some incomprehensible language and signed with a splash of blood, and also a kind of scythe. The other notable feature of this creature was that no one other than his client had been able to see it, which Mr Anstey dismissed as a trick of the light.

  Three days? Four? Dirk didn't think he'd be able to manage a whole week with a straight face, but he was already looking at something like a grand for his trouble. And he would stick a new fridge down on the list of tangential but non-negotiable expenses. That would be a good one. Getting the old fridge thrown out was definitely part of the interconnectedness of all things.

  He began to whistle at the thought of simply getting someone to come round and cart the thing away, turned into Lupton Road and was surprised at all the police cars there. And the ambulance. He didn't like them being there. It didn't feel right. It didn't sit comfortably in his mind alongside his visions of a new fridge.


  * * *

  Dirk knew Lupton Road. It was a wide tree-lined affair, with large late-Victorian terraces which stood tall and sturdily and resented police cars. Resented them if they turned up in numbers, that is, and if their lights were flashing. The inhabitants of Lupton Road liked to see a nice, well-turned-out single police car patrolling up and down the street in a cheerful and robust manner--it kept property values cheerful and robust too. But the moment the lights started flashing in that knuckle-whitening blue, they cast their pallor not only on the neatly pointed bricks that they flashed across, but also on the very values those bricks represented.

  Anxious faces peered from behind the glass of neighbouring windows, and were irradiated by the blue strobes.

  There were three of them, three police cars left askew across the road in a way that transcended mere parking. It sent out a massive signal to the world saying that the law was here now taking charge of things, and that anyone who just had normal, good and cheerful business to conduct in Lupton Road could just fuck off.

  Dirk hurried up the road, sweat pricking at him beneath his heavy leather coat. A police constable loomed up ahead of him with his arms spread out, playing at being a stop barrier, but Dirk swept him aside in a torrent of words to which the constable was unable to come up with a good response off the top of his head. Dirk sped on to the house.

  At the door another policeman stopped him, and Dirk was about to wave an expired Marks and Spencer charge card at him with a deft little flick of the wrist that he had practised for hours in front of a mirror on those long evenings when nothing much else was on, when the officer suddenly said, "Hey, is your name Gently?"

  Dirk blinked at him warily. He made a slight grunting noise that could be either "yes" or "no" depending on the circumstances.

  "Because the Chief has been looking for you."

  "Has he?" said Dirk.

  "I recognised you from his description," said the officer looking him up and down with a slight smirk.

  "In fact," continued the officer, "he's been using your name in a manner that some might find highly offensive. He even sent Big Bob the Finder off in a car to find you. I can tell that he didn't find you from the fact that you're looking reasonably well. Lot of people get found by Big Bob the Finder, they come in a bit wobbly. Just about able to help us with our enquiries but that's about all. You'd better go in. Rather you than me," he added quietly.

  Dirk glanced at the house. The stripped-pine shutters were closed across all the windows. Though in all other respects the house seemed well cared for, groomed into a state of clean, well-pointed affluence, the closed shutters seemed to convey an air of sudden devastation.

/>   Oddly, there seemed to be music coming from the basement, or rather, just a single disjointed phrase of thumping music being repeated over and over again. It sounded as if the stylus had got stuck in the groove of a record, and Dirk wondered why no one had turned it off, or at least nudged the stylus along so that the record could continue. The song seemed very vaguely familiar and Dirk guessed that he had probably heard it on the radio recently, though he couldn't place it. The fragment of lyric seemed to be something like:

  "Don't pick it up, pick it up, pick i--

  "Don't pick it up, pick it up, pick i--

  "Don't pick it up, pick it up, pick i--" and so on.

  "You'll be wanting to go down to the basement," said the officer impassively, as if that was the last thing that anyone in their right mind would be wanting to do.

  Dirk nodded to him curtly and hurried up the steps to the front door, which was standing slightly ajar. He shook his head and clenched his shoulders to try and stop his brain fluttering.

  He went in.

  The hallway spoke of prosperity imposed on a taste that had originally been formed by student living. The floors were stripped boards heavily polyurethaned, the walls white with Greek rugs hung on them, but expensive Greek rugs. Dirk would be prepared to bet (though probably not to pay up) that a thorough search of the house would reveal, amongst who knew what other dark secrets, five hundred British Telecom shares and a set of Dylan albums that was complete up to Blood on the Tracks.

  Another policeman was standing in the hall. He looked terribly young, and he was leaning very slightly back against the wall, staring at the floor and holding his helmet against his stomach. His face was pale and shiny. He looked at Dirk blankly, and nodded faintly in the direction of the stairs leading down.

  Up the stairs came the repeated sound:

  "Don't pick it up, pick it up, pick i--

  "Don't pick it up, pick it up, pick i--"

  Dirk was trembling with a rage that was barging around inside him looking for something to hit or throttle. He wished that he could hotly deny that any of this was his fault, but until anybody tried to assert that it was, he couldn't.

  "How long have you been here?" he said curtly.

  The young policeman had to gather himself together to answer.

  "We arrived about half-hour ago," he replied in a thick voice. "Hell of a morning. Rushing around."

  "Don't tell me about rushing around," said Dirk, completely meaninglessly. He launched himself down the stars.

  "Don't pick it up, pick it up, pick i--

  "Don't pick it up, pick it up, pick i--"

  At the bottom there was a narrow corridor. The main door off it was heavily cracked and hanging off its hinges. It opened into a large double room. Dirk was about to enter when a figure emerged from it and stood barring his way.

  "I hate the fact that this case has got you mixed up in it," said the figure, "I hate it very much. Tell me what you've got to do with it so I know exactly what it is I'm hating."

  Dirk stared at the neat, thin face in astonishment.

  "Gilks?" he said.

  "Don't stand there looking like a startled whatsisname, what are those things what aren't seals? Much worse than seals. Big blubbery things.Dugongs. Don't stand there looking like a startled dugong. Why has that . . . ?" Gilks pointed into the room behind him, "why has that . . . man in there got your name and telephone number on an envelope full of money?"

  "How m . . . " started Dirk. "How, may I ask, do you come to be here, Gilks? What are you doing so far from the Fens? Surprised you find it dank enough for you here."

  "Three hundred pounds," said Gilks. "Why?"

  "Perhaps you would allow me to speak to my client," said Dirk.

  "Your client, eh?" said Gilks grimly. "Yes. All right. Why don't you speak to him? I'd be interested to hear what you have to say." He stood back stiffly, and waved Dirk into the room.

  Dirk gathered his thoughts and entered the room in a state of controlled composure which lasted for just over a second.

  Most of his client was sitting quietly in a comfortable chair in front of the hi-fi. The chair was placed in the optimal listening position--about twice as far back from the speakers as the distance between them, which is generally considered to be ideal for stereo imaging.

  He seemed generally to be casual and relaxed with his legs crossed and a half-finished cup of coffee on the small table beside him. Distressingly, though, his head was sitting neatly on the middle of the record which was revolving on the hi-fi turntable, with the tone arm snuggling up against the neck and constantly being deflected back into the same groove. As the head revolved it seemed once every 1.8 seconds or so to shoot Dirk a reproachful glance, as if to say, "See what happens when you don't turn up on time like I asked you to," then it would sweep on round to the wall, round, round, and back to the front again with more reproach.

  "Don't pick it up, pick it up, pick i--

  "Don't pick it up, pick it up, pick i--"

  The room swayed a little around Dirk, and he put his hand out against the wall to steady it.

  "Was there any particular service you were engaged to provide for your client?" said Gilks behind him, very quietly.

  "Oh, er, just a small matter," said Dirk weakly. "Nothing connected with all this. No, he, er, didn't mention any of this kind of thing at all. Well, look, I can see you're busy, I think I'd better just collect my fee and leave. You say he left it out for me?"

  Having said this, Dirk sat heavily on a small bentwood chair standing behind him, and broke it.

  Gilks hauled him back to his feet again, and propped him against the wall. Briefly he left the room, then came back with a small jug of water and a glass on a tray. He poured some water into the glass, took it to Dirk and threw it at him.


  "No," spluttered Dirk, "can't you at least turn the record off?"

  "That's forensic's job. Can't touch anything till the clever dicks have been. Maybe that's them now. Go out on to the patio and get some air. Chain yourself to the railing and beat yourself up a little, I'm pushed for time myself. And try to look less green, will you? It's not your colour."

  "Don't pick it up, pick it up, pick i--

  "Don't pick it up, pick it up, pick i--"

  Gilks turned round, looking tired and cross, and was about to go out and up the stairs to meet the newcomers whose voices could be heard up on the ground floor, when he paused and watched the head revolving patiently on its heavy platter for a few seconds.

  "You know," he said at last, "these smart-alec show-off suicides really make me tired. They only do it to annoy."

  "Suicide?" said Dirk.

  Gilks glanced round at him.

  "Windows secured with iron bars half an inch thick," he said. "Door locked from the inside with the key still in the lock. Furniture piled against the inside of the door. French windows to the patio locked with mortice door bolts. No signs of a tunnel. If it was murder then the murderer must have stopped to do a damn fine job of glazing on the way out. Except that all the putty's old and painted over.

  "No. Nobody's left this room, and nobody's broken into it except for us, and I'm pretty sure we didn't do it.

  "I haven't time to fiddle around on this one. Obviously suicide; and just done to be difficult. I've half a mind to do the deceased for wasting police time. Tell you what," he said, glancing at his watch, "you've got ten minutes. If you come up with a plausible explanation of how he did it that I can put in my report, I'll let you keep the evidence in the envelope minus 20 per cent compensation to me for the emotional wear and tear involved in not punching you in the mouth."

  Dirk wondered for a moment whether or not to mention the visits his client claimed to have received from a strange and violent green-eyed, fur-clad giant who regularly emerged out of nowhere bellowing about contracts and obligations and waving a three foot glittering-edged scythe, but decided, on balance, no.

  "Don't pick it up, pick it up, pick i

  "Don't pick it up, pick it up, pick i--"

  He was seething at himself at last. He had not been able to seethe at himself properly over the death of his client because it was too huge and horrific a burden to bear. But now he had been humiliated by Gilks, and found himself in too wobbly and disturbed a state to fight back, so he was able to seethe at himself about that.

  He turned sharply away from his tormentor and let himself out into the patio garden to be alone with his seethings.

  The patio was a small, paved, west-facing area at the rear which was largely deprived of light, cut off as it was by the high back wall of the house and by the high wall of some industrial building that backed on to the rear. In the middle of it stood, for who knew what possible reason, a stone sundial. If any light at all fell on the sundial you would know that it was pretty close to noon, GMT. Other than that, birds perched on it. A few plants sulked in pots.

  Dirk jabbed a cigarette in his mouth and burnt a lot of the end of it fiercely.

  "Don't pick it up, pick it up, pick i--

  "Don't pick it up, pick it up, pick i--"

  still nagged from inside the house.

  Neat garden walls separated the patio on either side from the gardens of neighbouring houses. The one to the left was the same size as this one, the one to the right extended a little further, benefiting from the fact that the industrial building finished flush with the intervening garden wall. There was an air of well-kemptness. Nothing grand, nothing flashy, just a sense that all was well and that upkeep on the houses was no problem. The house to the right, in particular, looked as if it had had its brickwork repointed quite recently, and its windows reglossed.

  Dirk took a large gulp of air and stood for a second staring up into what could be seen of the sky, which was grey and hazy. A single dark speck was wheeling against the underside of the clouds. Dirk watched this for a while, glad of any focus for his thoughts other than the horrors of the room he had just left. He was vaguely aware of comings and goings within the room, of a certain amount of tape-measuring happening, of a feeling that photographs were being taken, and that severed-head-removal activities were taking place.

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