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


---------------------------------------------------------------
Scanned and corrected by Dirk Gently.
Version 1.01, second, corrected release.

---------------------------------------------------------------

When a passenger check-in desk at Terminal Two, Heathrow
Airport, shot up through the roof engulfed in a ball of orange
flame the usual peaple tried to claim responsibility. First the
IRA, then the PLO and the Gas Board. Even British Nuclear Fuels
rushed out a statement to the effect that the situation was
completely under control, that it was a one in a million
chance, that there was hardly any radioactive leakage at all,
and that the site of the explosion would make a nice location
for a day out with the kids and a picnic, before finally having
to admit that it wasn't actually anything to do with them at
all.

No rational cause could be found for the explosion - it
was simply designated an act of god. But, thinks Dirk Gently,
which God? And why? What God would be hanging around Terminal
Two of Heathrow Airport trying to chatch the 15.37 to Oslo.

Funnier than Psycho... more chilling than Jeeves
Takes Charge
... shorter than War and Peace... the
new Dirk Gently novel, The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul.
Douglas Adams is the best-selling author of the Hitch
Hiker
books: The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the
Galaxy, The Restaurant at
the End of the Universe, Life,
the Universe and Everything, So
Long, and Thanks for All
the Fish
, and Mostly Harmless.
The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy has appeared in more
forms than one might reasonably expect, most of which flatly
contradict each other. It has appeared as a BBC radio series
(its original form), a BBC TV series, all sorts of different
records, cassettes, and CD's, a computer game, and also,
apotheotically, a bath towel. A series of graphic novels is
currently in preparation, and the motion-picture version is
confidently expected any decade now.
He is also the author of the Dirk Gently books, Dirk
Gently's
Holistic Detective Agency and The Long
Dark Tea-Time of the
Soul. He is currently working
on another book in this series.
He has also written The Deeper Meaning of Liff with
John Lloyd and, most recently, the travel and wildlife book
Last Chance to See, with Mark Carwardine. He is
making more TV programmes these days and also frequently
lectures on computers and semi-extinct parrots.
He lives partly in Islington, London, partly in Provence,
France, but mostly in airport bookstalls. Also by Douglas Adams
in Pan Books

The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
Life, the Universe and Everything
So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
Mostly Harmless

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
The Deeper Meaning of Liff (With John Lloyd)
Last Chance to See (With Mark Carwardine)

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

Pan Books in association with William HeinemannFor Jane
This book was written and typeset on an Apple Macintosh II and
an Apple LaserWriter II NTX. The word processing software was
FullWrite Professional from Ashton Tate. The fnal proofing and
photosetting was done by The Last Word, London SW6.
---------------------------------------------------------------

I would like to say an enormous thank you to my amazing
and wonderful editor, Sue Freestone.
Her help, support, criticism, encouragement. enthusiasm
and sandwiches have been beyond measure. I also owe thanks and
apologies to Sophie, James and Vivian who saw so little of her
during the final weeks of work.

Chapter 1

It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth
has ever produced the expression "as pretty as an airport".
Airports are ugly. Some are very ugly. Some attain a
degree of ugliness that can only be the result of a special
effort. This ugliness arises because airports ane full of
people who are tired, cross, and have just discovered that
their luggage has landed in Murmansk (Murmansk airport is the
only known exception to this otherwise infallible rule), and
architects have on the whole tried to reflect this in their
designs.


They have sought to highlight the tiredness and crossness
motif with brutal shapes and nerve jangling colours, to make
effortless the business of separating the traveller for ever
from his or her luggage or loved ones, to confuse the traveller
with arrows that appear to point at the windows, distant tie
racks, or the current position of Ursa Minor in the night sky,
and wherever possible to expose the plumbing on the grounds
that it is functional, and conceal the location of the
departure gates, presumably on the grounds that they are not.

Caught in the middle of a sea of hazy light and a sea of
hazy noise, Kate Schechter stood and doubted.
All the way out of London to Heathrow she had suffered
from doubt. She was not a superstitious person, or even a
religious person. she was simply someone who was not at all
sure she should be flying to Norway. But she was finding it
increasingly easy to believe that God, if there was a God, and
if it was remotely possible that any godlike being who could
order the disposition of particles at the creation of the
Universe would also be interested in directing traffic on the
M4, did not want her to fly to Norway either. All the trouble
with the tickets, finding a next-door neighbour to look after
the cat, then finding the cat so it could be looked after by
the next-door neighbour, the sudden leak in the roof, the
missing wallet, the weather, the unexpected death of the
next-door neighbour, the pregnancy of the cat - it all had the
semblance of an orchestrated campaign of obstruction which had
begun to assume godlike proportions.
Even the taxi-driver - when she had eventually found a
taxi- had said, "Norway? What you want to go there for?" And
when she hadn't instantly said, "'The aurora borealis!" or
"Fjords!" but had looked doubtful for a moment and bitten her
lip, he had said, "I know, I bet it's some bloke dragging you
out there. Tell you what, tell him to stuff it. Go to
Tenerife."
There was an idea.
Tenerife.
Or even, she dared to think for a fleeting second, home.
She had stared dumbly out of the taxi window at the angry
tangles of traffic and thought that however cold and miserable
the weather was here, that was nothing to what it would be like
in Norway.
Or, indeed, at home. Home would bc about as icebound as
Norway right now. Icebound, and punctuated with geysers of
steam bursting out of the grnund, catching in the frigid air
and dissipating bctween the glacial cliff faces of Sixth
Avenue.
A quick glance at the itinerary Kate had pursued in the
course of her thirty years would reveal her without any doubt
to be a New Yorker. For though she had lived in the city very
little, most of her life had been spent at a constant distance
from it. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Europe, and a period of
distracted wandering around South America five years ago
following the loss of her newly mamed husband, Luke, in a New
York taxihailing accident.
She enjoyed the notion that New York was home, and that
she missed it, but in fact the only thing she really missed was
pizza. And not just any old pizza, but the sort of pizza they
brought to your door if you phoned them up and asked them to.
That was the only real pizza. Pizza that you had to go out and
sit at a table staring at red paper napkins for wasn't real
pizza however much extra pepperoni and anchovy they put on it.
London was the place she liked living in most, apart, of
course, from the pizza problem, which drove her crazy. Why
would no one deliver pizza? Why did no one understand that it
was fundamental to the whole nature of pizza that it amved at
your front door in a hot cardboard box? That you slithered it
out of greaseproof paper and ate it in folded slices in front
of the TV? What was the fundamental flaw in the stupid,
stuck-up, sluggardly English that they couldn't grasp this
simple principle? For some odd reason it was the one
frustration she could never learn simply to live with and
accept, and about once a month or so she would get very
depressed, phone a pizza restaurant, order the biggest, most
lavish pizza she could describe - pizza with an extra pizza on
it, essentially - and then, sweetly, ask them to deliver it.
"To what?"
"Deliver. Let me give you the address - "
"I don't understand. Aren't you going to come and pick it
up?"
"No. Aren't you going to deliver? My address - "
"Er, we don't do that, miss."
"Don't do what?"
"Er, deliver. . ."
"You don't deliver? Am I hearing you
correctly
... ?"
The exchange would quickly degenerate into an ugly
slanging match which would leave her feeling drained and shaky,
but much, much better the following morning. In all other
respects she was one of the most sweet-natured people you could
hope to meet.
But today was testing her to the limit.
There had been terrible traffic jams on the motorway, and
when the distant flash of blue lights made it clear that the
cause was an accident somewhere ahead of them Kate had become
more tense and had stared fixedly out of the other window as
eventually they had crawled past it.
The taxi-driver had been bad-tempered when at last he had
dropped her off because she didn't have the right money, and
there was a lot of disgruntled hunting through tight trouser
pockets before he was eventually able to find change for her.
The atmosphere was heavy and thundery and now, standing in the
middle of the main check-in concourse at Terminal Two, Heathrow
Airport, she could not find the check-in desk for her flight to
Oslo.
She stood very still for a moment, breathing calmly and
deeply and trying not to think of Jean-Philippe.
Jean-Philippe was, as the taxi-driver had correctly
guessed, the reason why she was going to Norway, but was also
the reason why she was convinced that Norway was not at all a
good place for her to go. Thinking of him therefore made her
head oscillate and it seemed best not to think about him at all
but simply to go to Norway as if that was where she happened to
be going anyway. She would then be terribly surprised to bump
into him at whatever hotel it was he had written on the card
that was tucked into the side pocket of her handbag.
In fact she would be surprised to find him there anyway.
What she would be much more likely to find was a message from
him saying that he had been unexpectedly called away to
Guatemala, Seoul or Tenerife and that he would call her from
there. Jean-Philippe was the most continually absent person she
had ever met. In this he was the culmination of a series. Since
she had lost Luke to the great yellow Chevrolet she had been
oddly dependent on the rather vacant emotions that a succession
of self-absorbed men had inspired in her.
She tried to shut all this out of her mind, and even shut
her eyes for a second. She wished that when she opened them
again there would be a sign in front of her saying "This way
for Norway" which she could simply follow without needing to
think about it or anything else ever again. This, she
reflected, in a continuation of her earlier train of thought,
was presumably how religions got started, and must be the
reason why so many sects hang around airports looking for
converts. They know that people there are at their most
vulnerable and perplexed, and ready to accept any kind of
guidance.
Kate opened her eyes again and was, of course,
disappointed. But then a second or two later there was a
momentary parting in a long surging wave of cross Germans in
inexplicable yellow polo shirts and through it she had a brief
glimpse of the check-in desk for Oslo. Lugging her garment bag
on to her shoulder, she made her way towards it.
There was just one other person before her in the line at
the desk and he, it turned out, was having trouble or perhaps
making it.
He was a large man, impressively large and well-built -
even expertly built - but he was also definitely odd-looking in
a way that Kate couldn't quite deal with. She couldn't even say
what it was that was odd about him, only that she was
immediately inclined not to include him on her list of things
to think about at the moment. She remembered reading an article
which had explained that the central processing unit of the
human brain only had seven memory registers, which meant that
if you had seven things in your mind at the same time and then
thought of something else, orte of the other seven would
instantly drop out.
In quick succession she thought about whether or not she
was likely to catch the plane, about whether it was just her
imagination that the day was a particularly bloody one, about
airline staff who smile charmingly and are breathtakingly rude,
about Duty Free shops which are able to charge much lower
prices than ordinary shops but - mysteriously - don't, about
whether or not she felt a magazine article about airports
coming on which might help pay for the trip, about whether her
garment bag would hurt less on her other shoulder and finally,
in spite of all her intentions to the contrary, about
Jean-Philippe, who was another set of at lest seven subtopics
all to himself.
The man standing arguing in front of her popped right out
of her mind.
It was only the announcement on the airport Tannoy of the
last call for her flight to Oslo which forced her attention
back to the situation in front of her.
The large man was making trouble about the fact that he
hadn't been given a first class seat reservation. It had just
transpired that the reason for this was that he didn't in fact
have a first class ticket.
Kate's spirits sank to the very bottom of her being and
began to prowl around there making a low growling noise.
It now transpired that the man in front of her didn't
actually have a ticket at all, and the argument then began to
range freely and angrily over such topics as the physical
appearance of the airline :heck-in girl, her qualities as a
person, theories about her ancestors, speculations as to what
surprises the future might have in store for her and the
airline for which she worked, and finally lit by chance on the
happy subject of the man's credit card.
He didn't have one.
Further discussions ensued, and had to do with cheques,
and why the airline did not accept them.
Kate took a long, slow, murderous look at her watch.
"Excuse me," she said, interrupting the transactions. "Is
this going to take long? I have to catch the Oslo flight."
"I'm just dealing with this gentleman," said the girl,
"I'll be with you in just one second."
Kate nodded, and politely allowed just one second to go
by.
"It's just that the flight's about to leave," she said
then. "I have one bag, I have my ticket, I have a reservation.
It'll take about thirty seconds. I hate to interrupt, but I'd
hate even more to miss my flight for the sake of thirty
seconds. That's thirty actual seconds, not thirty `just one'
seconds, which could keep us here all night."
The check-in girl turned the full glare on her lipgloss on
to Kate, but before she could speak the large blond man looked
round, and the effect of his face was a little disconcerting.
"I, too," he said in a slow, angry Nordic voice, "wish to
fly to Oslo."
Kate stared at him. He looked thoroughly out of place in
an airport, or rather, the airport looked thoroughly out of
place around him.
"Well," she said, "the way we're stacked up at the moment
it looks like neither of us is going to make it. Can we just
sort this one out? What's the hold-up?"
The check-in girl smiled her charming, dead smile and
said, "The airline does not accept cheques, as a matter of
company policy."
"Well I do," said Kate, slapping down her own credit card.
"Charge the gentleman's ticket to this, and I'll take a cheque
from him.
"OK?" she added to the big man, who was looking at her
with slow surprise. His eyes were large and blue and conveyed
the impression that they had looked at a lot of glaciers in
their time. They were extraordinarily arrogant and also
muddled.
"OK?" she repeated briskly. "My name is Kate Schechter.
Two `c's, two `h's, two `e's and also a `t', an `r' and an `s'.
Provided they're all there the bank won't be fussy about the
order they come in. They never seem to know themselves."
The man very slowly inclined his head a little towards her
in a rough bow of acknowledgement. He thanked her for her
kindness, courtesy and some Norwegian word that was lost on
her, said that it was a long while since he had encountered
anything of the kind, that she was a woman of spirit and some
other Norwegian word, and that he was indebted to her. He also
added, as an afterthought, that he had no cheque-book.
"Right!" said Kate, determined not to be deflected from
her course. She fished in her handbag for a piece of paper,
took a pen from the check-in counter, scribbled on the paper
and thrust it at him.
"That's my address," she said, "send me the money. Hock
your fur coat if you have to. Just send it me. OK? I'm taking a
flyer on trusting you."
The big man took the scrap of paper, read the few words on
it with immense slowness, then folded it with elaborate care
and put it into the pocket of his coat. Again he bowed to her
very slightly.
Kate suddenly realised that the check-in girl was silently
waiting for her pen back to fill in the credit card form. She
pushed it back at her in annoyance, handed over her own ticket
and imposed on herself an icy calm.
The airport Tannoy announced the departure of their
flight.
"May I see your passports, please?" said the girl
unhunriedly.
Kate handed hers over, but the big man didn't have one.
"You what?" exclaimed Kate. The airline girl simply
stopped moving at all and stared quietly at a random point on
her desk waiting for someone else to make a move. It wasn't her
problem.
The man repeated angrily that he didn't have a passport.
He shouted it and banged his fist on the counter so hard that
it was slightly dented by the force of the blow.
Kate picked up her ticket, her passport and her credit
card and hoisted her garment bag back up on to her shoulder.
"This is when I get off," she said, and simply walked
away. She felt that she had made every effort a human being
could possibly be expected to make to catch her plane, but that
it was not to be. She would send a message to Jean-Philippe
saying that she could not be there, and it would probably sit
in a slot next to his message to her saying why he could not be
there either. For once they would be equally absent.
For the time being she would go and cool off. She set off
in search of first a newspaper and then some coffee, and by
dint of following the appropriate signs was unable to locate
either. She was then unable to find a working phone from which
to send a message, and decided to give up on the airport
altogether. Just get out, she told herself, find a taxi, and go
back home.
She threaded her way back across the check-in concourse,
and had almost made it to the exit when she happened to glance
back at the check-in desk that had defeated her, and was just
in time to see it shoot up through the roof engulfed in a ball
of orange flame.
As she lay beneath a pile of rubble, in pain, darkness,
and choking dust, trying to find sensation in her limbs, she
was at least relieved to be able to think that she hadn't
merely been imagining that this was a bad day. So thinking, she
passed out.

Chapter 2

The usual people tried to claim responsibility.
First the IRA, then the PLO and the Gas Board. Even
British Nuclear Fuels rushed out a statement to the effect that
the situation was completely under control, that it was a one
in a million chance, that there was hardly any radioactive
leakage at all, and that the site of the explosion would make a
nice location for a day out with the kids and a picnic, before
finally having to admit that it wasn't actually anything to do
with them at all.
No cause could be found for the explosion.
It seemed to have happened spontaneously and of its own
free will. Explanations were advanced, but most of these were
simply phrases which restated the problem in different words,
along the same principles which had given the world "metal
fatigue". In fact, a very similar phrase was invented to
account for the sudden transition of wood, metal, plastic and
concrete into an explosive condition, which was "non-linear
catastrophic sWctural exasperation", or to put it another way -
as a junior cabinet minister did on television the following
night in a phrase which was to haunt the rest of his career -
the check-in desk had just got "fundamentally fed up with being
where it was".
As in all such disastrous events, estimates of the
casualties varied wildly. They started at forty-seven dead,
eighty-nine seriously injured, went up to sixty-three dead, a
hundred and thirty injured, and rose as high as one hundred and
seventeen dead before the figures started to be revised
downwards once more. The final figures revealed that once all
the people who could be accounted for had been accounted for,
in fact no one had been killed at all. A small number of people
were in hospital suffering from cuts and bruises and varying
degrees of traumatised shock, but that, unless anyone had any
information about anybody actually being missing, was that.
This was yet another inexplicable aspect to the whole
affair. The force of the explosion had been enough to reduce a
large part of the front of Terminal Two to rubble, and yet
everyone inside the building had somehow either fallen very
luckily, or been shielded from one piece of falling masonry by
another, or had the shock of the explosion absorbed by their
luggage. All in all, very little luggage had survived at all.
There were questions asked in Parliament about this, but not
very interesting ones.

It was a couple of days before Kate Schechter became aware
of any of these things, or indeed of anything at all in the
outside world.
She passed the time quietly in a world of her own in which
she was surrounded as far as the eye could see with old cabin
trunks full of past memories in which she rummaged with great
curiosity, and sometimes bewilderment. Or, at least, about a
tenth of the cabin trunks were full of vivid, and often painful
or uncomfortable memories of her past life; the other
nine-tenths were full of penguins, which surprised her. Insofar
as she recognised at all that she was dreaming, she realised
that she must be exploring her own subconscious mind. She had
heard it said that humans are supposed only to use about a
tenth of their brains, and that no one was very clear what the
other nine-tenths were for, but she had certainly never heard
it suggested that they were used for storing penguins.
Gradually the trunks, the memories and the penguins began
to grow indistinct, to become all white and swimmy, then to
become like walls that were all white and swimmy, and finally
to become walls that were merely white, or rather a yellowish,
greenish kind of off-white, and to enclose her in a small room.
The room was in semi-darkness. A bedside light was on but
turned down low, and the light from a street lamp found its way
between the grey curtains and threw sodium patterns on the
opposite wall. She became dimly aware of the shadowed shape of
her own body lying under the white, turned-down sheet and the
pale, neat blankets. She stared at it for a nervous while,
checking that it looked right before she tried, tentatively, to
move any part of it. She tried her right hand, and that seemed
to be fine. A little stiff and aching, but the fingers all
responded, and all seemed to be of the right length and
thickness, and to bend in the right places and in the right
directions.
She panicked briefly when she couldn't immediately locate
her left hand, but then she found it lying across her stomach
and nagging at her in some odd way. It took her a second or two
of concentration to put together a number of rather disturbing
feelings and realise that there was a needle bandaged into her
arm. This shook her quite badly. From the needle there snaked a
long thin transparent pipe that glistened yellowly in the light
from the street lamp and hung in a gentle curl from a thick
plastic bag suspended from a tall metal stand. An array of
horrors briefly assailed her in respect of this apparatus, but
she peered dimly at the bag and saw the words "Dextro-Saline".
She made herself calm down again and lay quietly for a few
moments before continuing her exploration.
Her ribcage seemed undamaged. Bruised and tender, but
there was no shaiper pain anywhere to suggest that anything was
broken. Her hips and thighs ached and were stiff, but revealed
no serious hurt. She flexed
the muscles down her right leg and then her left. She
rather fancied that her left ankle was sprained.
In other words, she told herself, she was perfectly all
right. So what was she doing here in what she could tell from
the septic colour of the paint was clearly a hospital?
She sat up impatiently, and immediately rejoined the
penguins for an entertaining few minutes.
The next time she came round she treated herself with a
little more care, and lay quietly, feeling gently nauseous.
She poked gingerly at her memory of what had happened. It
was dark and blotchy and came at her in sick, greasy waves like
the North Sea. Lumpy things jumbled themselves out of it and
slowly arranged themselves into a heaving airport. The airport
was sour and ached in her head, and in the middle of it,
pulsing like a migraine, was the memory of a moment's whirling
splurge of light.
It became suddenly very clear to her that the check-in
concourse of Terminal Two at Heathrow Airport had been hit by a
meteorite. Silhouetted in the flare was the fur-coated figure
of a big man who must have caught the full force of it and been
reduced instantly to a cloud of atoms that were free to go as
they pleased. The thought caused a deep and horrid shudder to
go through her. He had been infuriating and arrogant, but she
had liked him in an odd way. There had been something oddly
noble in his perverse bloody-mindedness. Or maybe, she
realised, she liked to think that such perverse
bloody-mindedness was noble because it reminded her of herself
trying to order pizza to be delivered in an alien, hostile and
non-pizza-delivering world. Nobleness was one word for making a
fuss about the trivial inevitabilities of life, but there were
others.
She felt a sudden surge of fear and loneliness, but it
quickly ebbed away and left her feeling much more composed,
relaxed, and wanting to go to the lavatory.
According to her watch it was shortly after three o'clock,
and according to everything else it was night-time. She should
probably call a nurse and let the world know she had come
round. There was a window in the side wall of the room through
which she could see a dim corridor in which stood a stretcher
trolley and a tall black oxygen bottle, but which was otherwise
empty. Things were very quiet out there.
Peering around her in the small room she saw a
white-painted plywood cupboard, a couple of tubular steel and
vinyl chairs lurking quietly in the shadows, and a
white-painted plywood bedside cabinet which supported a small
bowl with a single banana in it. On the other side of the bed
stood her drip stand. Set into the wall on that side of the bed
was a metal plate with a couple of black knobs and a set of old
bakelite headphones hanging from it, and wound around the
tubular side pillar of the bedhead was a cable with a bell push
attached to it, which she fingered, and then decided not to
push.
She was fine. She could find her own way about.
Slowly, a little woozily, she pushed herself up on to her
elbows, and slid her legs out from under the sheets and on to
the floor, which was cold to her feet. She could tell almost
immediately that she shouldn't be doing this because every part
of her feet was sending back streams of messages telling her
exactly what every tiniest bit of the floor that they touched
felt like, as if it was a strange and worrying thing the like
of which they had never encountered before. Nevertheless she
sat on the edge of the bed and made her feet accept the floor
as something they were just going to have to get used to.
Ttte hospital had put her into a large, baggy, striped
thing. It wasn't merely baggy, she decided on examining it more
closely, it actually was a bag. A bag of loose blue and white
striped cotton. It opened up the back and let in chilly night
draughts. Perfunctory sleeves flopped half-way down her arms.
She moved her arms around in the light, examining the skin,
rubbing it and pinching it, especially around the bandage which
held her drip needle in place. Normally her arms were lithe and
the skin was firm and supple. Tonight, however, they looked
like bits of chickens. Briefly she smoothed each forearm with
her other hand, and then looked up again, purposefully.
She reached out and gripped the drip stand and, because it
wobbled slightly less than she did, she was able to use it to
pull herself slowly to her feet. She stood there, her tall slim
figure trembling, and after a few seconds she held the drip
stand away at a bent arm's length, like a shepherd holding a
crook.
She had not made it to Norway, but she was at least
standing up.
The drip stand rolled on four small and independently
perverse wheels which behaved like four screaming children in a
supermarket, but nevertheless Kate was able to propel it to the
door ahead of her. Walking increased her sense of wooziness,
but also increased her resolve not to give in to it. She
reached the door, opened it, and pushing the drip stand out
ahead of her, looked out into the corridor.
To her left the corridor ended in a couple of swing-doors
with circular porthole windows, which seemed to lead into a
larger area, an open ward perhaps. To her right a number of
smaller doors opened off the corridor as it continued on for a
short distance before turning a sharp corner. One of those
doors would probably be the lavatory. The others? Well, she
would find out as she looked for the lavatory.
The first two were cupboards. The third was slightly
bigger and had a chair in it and therefor probably counted as a
room since most people don't like to sit in cupboards, even
nurses, who have to do a lot of things that most people
wouldn't like to. It also had a stack of styro beakers, a lot
of semi-congealed coffee creamer and an elderly coffee maker,
all sitting on top of a small table together and seeping grimly
over a copy of the Evening Standard.
Kate picked up the dark, damp paper and tried to
reconstruct some of her missing days from it. However, what
with her own wobbly condition making it difficult to read, and
the droopily stuck-together condition of the newspaper, she was
able to glean little more than the fact that no one could
really say for certain what had happened. It seemed that no one
had been seriously hurt, but that an employee of one of the
airlines was still unaccounted for. The incident had now been
officially classified as an "Act of God".
"Nice one, God," thought Kate. She put down the remains of
the paper and closed the door behind her.
The next door she tried was another small side ward like
her own. There was a bedside table and a single banana in the
fruit bowl.
The bed was clearly occupied. She pulled the door to
quickly, but she did not pull it quickly enough. Unfortunately
something odd had caught her attention, but although she had
noticed it, she coutd not immediately say what it was. She
stood there with the door half closed, staring at the door,
knowing that she should not look again, and knowing that she
would.
Carefully she eased the door back open again.
The room was darkly shadowed and chilly. The chilliness
did not give her a good feeling about the occupant of the bed.
She listened. The silence didn't sound too good either. It
wasn't the silence of healthy deep sleep, it was the silence of
nothing but a little distant traffic noise.
She hesitated for a long while, silhouetted in the
doorway, looking and listening. She wondered about the sheer
bulk of the occupant of the bed and how cold he was with just a
thin blanket pulled over him. Next to the bed was a small
tubular-legged vinyl bucket chair which was rather overwhelmed
by the huge nnd heavy fur coat draped over it, and Kate thought
that the coat should more properly be draped over the bed and
its cold occupant.
At last, walking as softly and cautiously as she could,
she moved into the room and over to the bed. She stood looking
down at the face of the big, Nordic man. Though cold, and
though his eyes were shut, his face was frowning slightly as if
he was still rather worried about something. This struck Kate
as being almost infinitely sad. In life the man had had the air
of someone who was beset by huge, if somewhat puzzling,
difficulties, and the appearance that he had almost immediately
found things beyond this life that were a bother to him as well
was miserable to contemplate.
She was astonished that he appeared to be so unscathed.
His skin was totally unmarked. It was rugged and healthy - or
rather had been healthy until very recently. Closer inspection
showed a network of fine lines which suggested that he was
older than the mid-thirties she had originally assumed. He
could even have been a very fit and healthy man in his late
forties.
Standing against the wall, by the door, was something
unexpected. It was a large Coca-Cola vending machine. It didn't
look as if it had been installed there: it wasn't plugged in
and it had a small neat sticker on it explaining that it was
temporarily out of order. It looked as if it had simply been
left there inadvenently by someone who was probably even now
walking around wondering which room he had left it in. Its
large red and white wavy panel stared glassily into the room
and did not explain itself. The only thing the machine
communicated to the outside world was that there was a slot
into which coins of a variety of denominations might be
inserted, and an aperture to which a variety of different cans
would be delivered if the machine was working, which it was
not. There was also an old sledge-hammer leaning against it
which was, in its own way, odd.
Faintness began to creep over Kate, the room began to
develop a slight spin, and there was some restless rustling in
the cabin trunks of her mind.
Then she realised that the rustling wasn't simply her
imagination. There was a distinct noise in the room - a heavy,
beating, scratching noise, a muffled fluttering. The noise rose
and fell like the wind, but in her dazed and woozy state, Kate
could not at first tell where the noise was coming from. At
last her gaze fell on the curtains. She stared at them with the
worried frown of a drunk trying to work out why the door is
dancing. The sound was coming from the curtains. She walked
uncertainly towards them and pulled them apart. A huge eagle
with circles tattooed on its wings was clattering and beating
against the window, staring in with great yellow eyes and
pecking wildly at the glass.
Kate staggered back, turned and tried to heave herself out
of the room. At the end of the corridor the porthole doors
swung open and two figures came through them. Hands rushed
towards her as she became hopelessly entangled in the drip
stand and began slowly to spin towards the floor.
She was unconscious as they carefully laid her back in her
bed. She was unconscious half an hour later when a disturbingly
short figure in a worryingly long white doctor's coat arrived,
wheeled the big man away on a stretcher trolley and then
returned after a few minutes for the Coca-Cola machine.
She woke a few hours later with a wintry sun seeping
through the window. The day looked very quiet and ordinary, but
Kate was still shaking.

Chapter 3

The same sun later broke in through the upper windows of a
house in North London and struck the peacefully sleeping figure
of a man.
The room in which he slept was large and bedraggled and
did not much benefit from the sudden intrusion of light. The
sun crept slowly across the bedclothes, as if nervous of what
it might find amongst them, slunk down the side of the bed,
moved in a rather startled way across some objects it
encountered on the floor, toyed nervously with a couple of
motes of dust, lit briefly on a stuffed fruitbat hanging in the
corner, and fled.
This was about as big an appearance as the sun ever put in
here, and it lasted for about an hour or so, during which time
the sleeping figure scarcely stirred.
At eleven o'clock the phone rang, and still the figure did
not respond, any more than it had responded when the phone had
rung at twenty-five to seven in the morning, again at twenty to
seven, again at ten to seven, and again for ten minutes
continuously starting at five to seven, after which it has
settled into a long and significant silence, disturbed only by
the braying of police sirens in a nearby street at around nine
o'clock, the delivery of a large eighteenth-century dual manual
harpsichord at around nine-fifteen, and the collection of same
by bailiffs at a little after ten. This was a not uncommon sort
of occurrence- the people concerned were accustomed to finding
the key under the doormat, and the man in the bed was
accustomed to sleeping through it. You would probably not say
that he was sleeping the sleep of the just, unless you meant
the just asleep, but it was certainly the sleep of someone who
was not fooling about when he climbed into bed of a night and
turned off the light.
The room was not a room to elevate the soul. Louis XIV, to
pick a name at random, would not have liked it, would have
found it not sunny enough, and insufficiently full of mirrors.
He would have desired someone to pick up the socks, put the
records away, and maybe burn the place down. Michelangelo would
have been distressed by its proponions, which were neither
lofty nor shaped by any noticeable inner harmony or symmetry,
other than that all parts of the room were pretty much equally
full of old coffee mugs, shoes and brimming ashtrays, most of
which were now sharing their tasks with each other. The walls
were painted in almost precisely that shade of green which
Raffaello Sanzio would have bitten off his own right hand at
the wrist rather than use, and Hercules, on seeing the room,
would probably have returned half an hour later armed with a
navigable river. It was, in short, a dump, and was likely to
remain so for as long as it remained in the custody of Mr
Svlad, or "Dirk", Gently, nи Cjelli.
At last Gently stirred.
The sheets and blankets were pulled up tightly around his
head, but from somewhere half way down the length of the bed a
hand slowly emerged from under the bedclothes and its fingers
felt their way in little tapping movements along the floor.
Working from experience, they neatly circumvented a bowl of
sornething very nasty that had been sitting there since
Michaelmas, and eventually happened upon a half-empty pack of
untipped Gauloises and a box of matches. The fingers shook a
crumpled white tube free of the pack, seized it and the box of
matches, and then started to poke a way through the sheets
tangled together at the top of the bed, like a magician
prodding at a handkerchief from which he intends to release a
flock of doves.
The cigarette was at last inserted into the hole. The
cigarette was lit. For a while the bed itself appeared to be
smoking the cigarette in great heaving drags. It coughed long,
loud and shudderingly and then began at last to breathe in a
more measured rhythm. In this way, Dirk Gently achieved
consciousness.
He lay there for a while feeling a terrible sense of worry
and guilt about something weighing on his shoulders. He wished
he could forget about it, and promptly did. He levered himself
out of bed and a few minutes later padded downstairs.
The mail on the doormat consisted of the usual things: a
rude letter threatening to take away his American Express card,
an invitation to apply for an American Express card, and a few
bills of the more hysterical and unrealistic type. He couldn't
understand why they kept sending them. The cost of the postage
seemed merely to be good money thrown after bad. He shook his
head in wonderment at the malevolent incompetence of the world,
threw the mail away, entered the kitchen and approached the
fridge with caution.
It stood in the corner.
The kitchen was large and shrouded in a deep gloom that
was not relieved, only turned yellow, by the action of
switching on the light. Dirk squatted down in front of the
fridge and carefully examined the edge of the door. He found
what he was looking for. In fact he found more than he was
looking for.
Near the bottom of the door, across the narrow gap which
separated the door from the main body of the fridge, which held
the strip of grey insulating rubber, lay a single human hair.
It was stuck there with dried saliva. That he had expected. He
had stuck it there himself three days earlier and had checked
it on several occasions since then. What he had not expected to
fine was a second hair.
He frowned at it in alarm. A second hair?
It was stuck across the gap in the same way as the first
one, only this hair was near the top of the fridge door, and he
had not put it there. He peered at it closely, and even went so
far as to go and open the old shutters on the kitchen windows
to let some extra light in upon the scene.
The daylight shouldered its way in like a squad of
poiicemen, and did a lot of what's-all-thising around
the room which, like the bedroom, would have presented anyone
of an aesthetic disposition with difficulties. Like most of the
rooms in Dirk's house it was large, looming and utterly
dishevelled. It simply sneered at anyone's attempts to tidy it,
sneered at them and brushed them aside like one of the small
pile of dead and disheartened flies that lay beneath the
window, on top of a pile of old pizza boxes.
The light revealed the second hair for what it was - a
grey hair at root, dyed a vivid metallic orange. Dirk pursed
his lips and thought very deeply. He didn't need to think hard
in order to realise who the hair belonged to - there was only
one person who regularly entered the kitchen looking as if her
head had been used for extracting metal oxides from industrial
waste - but he did have seriously to consider the implications
of the discovery that she had been plastering her hair across
the door of his fridge.
It meant that the silently waged conflict between himself
and his cleaning lady had escalated to a new and more
frightening level. It was now, Dirk reckoned, fully three
months since this fridge door had been opened, and each of them
was grimly determined not to be the one to open it first. The
fridge no longer merely stood there in the comer of the
kitchen, it actually lurked. Dirk could quite clearly remember
the day on which the thing had started lurking. It was about a
week ago, when Dirk had tried a simple subterfuge to trick
Elena - the old bat's name was Elena, pronounced to rhyme with
cleaner, which was an irony that Dirk now no longer relished -
into opening the fridge door. The subterfuge had been deftly
deflected and had nearly rebounded horribly on Dirk.
He had resorted to the strategy of going to the local
mini-market to buy a few simple groceries. Nothing contentious
- a little milk, some eggs, some bacon, a carton or two of
chocolate custard and a simple half-pound of butter. He had
left them, innocently, on top of the fridge as if to say, "Oh,
when you have a moment, perhaps you could pop these inside..."
When he had returned that evening his heart bounded to see
that they were no longer on top of the fridge. They were gone!
They had not been merely moved aside or put on a shelf, they
were nowhere to be seen. She must finally have capitulated and
put them away. In the fridge. And she would surely have cleaned
it out once it was actually open. For the first and only time
his heart swelled with warmth and gratitude towards her, and he
was about to fling open the door of the thing in relief and
triumph when an eighth sense (at the last count, Dirk reckoned
he had eleven) warned him to be very, very careful, and to
consider first where Elena might have put the cleared out
contents of the fridge.
A nameless doubt gnawed at his mind as he moved
noiselessly towards the garbage bin beneath the sink. Holding
his breath, he opened the lid and looked.
There, nestling in the folds of the fresh black bin liner,
were his eggs, his bacon, his chocolate custard and his simple
half-pound of butter. Two milk bottles stood rinsed and neatly
lined up by the sink into which their contents had presumably
been poured.
She had thrown it away.
Rather than open the fridge door, she had thrown his food
away. He looked round slowly at the grimy, squat, white
monolith, and that was the exact moment at which he realised
without a shadow of a doubt that his fridge had now begun
seriously to lurk.
He made himself a stiff black coffee and sat, slightly
trembling. He had not even looked directly at the sink, but he
knew that he must unconsciously have noticed the two clean milk
bottles there, and some busy part of his mind had been alarmed
by them.
The next day he had explained all this away to himself. He
was becoming needlessly paranoiac. It had surely been an
innocent or careless mistake on Elena's part. She had probably
been brooding distractedly on her son's attack of bronchitis
peevishness or homosexuality or whatever it was that regularly
prevented her from either turning up, or from having noticeable
effect when she did. She was Italian and probably had
absent-mindedly mistaken his food for garbage.
But the business with the hair changed all that. It
established beyond all possible doubt that she knew exactly
what she was doing. She was under no circumstamces going to
open the fridge door until he had opened it first, and he was
under no circumstances going to open the fridge until she had.
Obviously she had not noticed his hair, otherwise it would
have been her most effective course simply to pull it off, thus
tricking him into thinking she had opened the fridge. He shuuld
presumably now remove her hair in the hope of pulling that same
trick on her, but even as he sat there he knew that somehow
that wouldn't work, and that they were locked into a tightening
spiral of non-fridge-opening that would lead them both to
madness or perdition.
He wondered if he could hire someone to come and open the
fridge.
No. He was not in a position to hire anybody to do
anything. He was not even in a position to pay Elena for the
last three weeks. The only reason he didn't ask her to leave
was that sacking somebody inevitably involved paying them off,
and this he was in no position to do. His secretary had finally
left him on her own initiative and gone off to do something
reprehensible in the travel business. Dirk had attempted to
cast scon on her preferring monotony of pay over-
"Regularity of pay," she had calmly corrected him.
- over job satisfaction.
She had nearly said, "Over what?", but at that
moment she realised that if she said that she would have to
listen to his reply, which would be bound to infuriate her into
arguing back. It occurred to her for the first time that the
only way of escaping was just not to get drawn into these
arguments. If she simply did not respond this time, then she
was free to leave. She tried it. She felt a sudden freedom. She
left. A week later, in much the same mood, she married an
airline cabin steward called Smith.
Dirk had kicked her desk over, and then had to pick it up
himself later when she didn't come back.
The detective business was currently as brisk as the tomb.
Nobody, it seemed, wished to have anything detected. He had
recently, to make ends meet, taken up doing palmistry in drag
on Thursday evenings, but he wasn't comfortable with it. He
could have withstood it - the hateful, abject humiliation of it
all was something to which he had, in different ways, now
become accustomed, and he was quite anonymous in his little
tent in the back garden of the pub - he could have withstood it
all if he hadn't been so horribly, excruciatingly good at it.
It made him break out in a sweat of self loathing. He tried by
every means to cheat, to fake, to be deliberately and cynically
bad, but whatever fakery he tried to introduce always failed
and he invariably ended up being right.
His worst moment had come about as a result of the poor
woman from Oxfordshiie who had come in to see him one evening.
Being in something of a waggish mood, he had suggested that she
should keep an eye on her husband, who, judging by her mamage
line, looked to be a bit of a flighty type. It transpired that
her husband was in fact a fighter pilot, and that his plane had
been lost in an exerrise over the North Sea only a fortnight
earlier.
Dirk had been flustered by this and had soothed
meaninglessly at her. He was certain, he said, that her husband
would be restored to her in the fullness of time, that all
would be well, and that all manner of things would be well and
so on. The woman said that she thought this was not very likely
seeing as the world record for staying alive in the North Sea
was rather less than an hour, and since no trace of her husband
had been found in two weeks it seemed fanciful to imagine that
he was anything other than stone dead, and she was trying to
get used to the idea, thank you very much. She said it rather
tartly.
Dirk had lost all control at this point and started to
babble.
He said that it was very clear from reading her hands that
the great sum of money she had coming to her would be no
consolation to her for the loss of her dear, dear husband, but
that at least it might comfort her to know that he had gone on
to that great something or other in the sky, that he was
floating on the fleeciest of white clouds, looking very
handsome in his new set of wings, and that he was terribly
sorry to be talking such appalling drivel but she had caught
him rather by surprise. Would she care for some tea, or some
vodka, or some soup?
The woman demurred. She said she had only wandered into
the tent by accident, she had been looking for the lavatories,
and what was that about the money?
"Complete gibberish," Dirk had explained. He was in great
difficulties, what with having the falsetto to keep up. "I was
making it up as I went along," he said. "Please allow me to
tender my most profound apologies for intruding so clumsily on
your private grief, and to escort you to, er, or rather, direct
you to the, well, what I can only in the circumstances call the
lavatory, which is out of the tent and on the left."
Dirk had been cast down by this encounter, but was then
utterly horrified a few days later when he discovered that the
very following morning the unfonunate woman had learnt that she
had won ё250,000 on the Premium Bonds. He spent several hours
that night standing on the roof of his house, shaking his fist
at the dark sky and shouting, "Stop it!" until a neighbour
complained to the police that he couldn't sleep. The police had
come round in a screaming squad car and woken up the rest of
the neighbourhood as well.

Today, this morning, Dirk sat in his kitchen and stared
dejectedly at his fridge. The bloody-minded ebullience which he
usually relied on to carry him through the day had been knocked
out of him in its very opening moments by the business with the
fridge. His will sat imprisoned in it, locked up by a single
hair.
What he needed, he thought, was a client. Please, God, he
thought, if there is a god, any god, bring me a client. Just a
simple client, the simpler the better. Credulous and rich.
Someone like that chap yesterday. He tapped his fingers on the
table.
The problem was that the more credulous the client, the
more Dirk fell foul at the end of his own better nature, which
was constantly rearing up and embarrassing him at the most
inopportune moments. Dirk frequently threatened to hurl his
better nature to the ground and kneel on its windpipe, but it
usually managed to get the better of him by dressing itself up
as guilt and self loathing, in which guise it could throw him
right out of the ring.
Credulous and rich. Just so that he could pay off some,
perhaps even just one, of the more prominent and sensational
bills. He lit a cigarette. The smoke curled upwards in the
moming light and attached itself to the ceiling.
Like that chap yesterday. . .
He paused.
The chap yesterday. . .
The world held its breath.
Quietly and gently there settled on him the knowledge that
something, somewhere, was ghastly. Something was terribly
wrong.
There was a disaster hanging silently in the air around
him waiting for him to notice it. His knees tingled.
What he needed, he had been thinking, was a client. He had
been thinking that as a matter of habit. It was what he always
thought at this time of the morning. What he had forgotten was
that he had one.
He stared wildly at his watch. Nearly eleven-thirty. He
shook his head to try and clear the silent ringing between his
ears, then made a hysterical lunge for his hat and his great
leather coat that hung behind the door.
Fifteen seconds later he left the house, five hours late
but moving fast.

Chapter 4

A minute or two later Dirk paused to consider his best
strategy. Rather than arrive five hours late and flustered it
would be better all round if he were to arrive five hours and a
few extra minutes late, but triumphantly in command.
"Pray God I am not too soon!" would be a good opening line
as he swept in, but it needed a good follow-through as well,
and he wasn't sure what it should be.
Perhaps it would save time if he went back to get his car,
but then again it was only a short distance, and he had a
tremendous propensity for getting lost when driving. This was
largely because of his method of "Zen" navigation, which was
simply to find any car that looked as if it knew where it was
going and follow it. The results were more often surprising
than successful, but he felt it was worth it for the sake of
the few occasions when it was both.
Furthermore he was not at all certain that his car was
working.
It was an elderly Jaguar, built at that very special time
in the company's history when they were making cars which had
to stop for repairs more often than they needed to stop for
petrol, and frequently needed to rest for months between
outings. He was, however, certain, now that he came to think
about it, that the car didn't have any petrol and furthermore
he did not have any cash or valid plastic to enable him to fill
it up.
He abandoned that line of thought as wholly fruitless.
He stopped to buy a newspaper while he thought things
over. The clock in the newsagent's said eleven thirty-five.
Damn damn, damn. He toyed with the idea of simply dropping the
case. Just walking away and forgetting about it. Having some
lunch. The whole thing was fraught with difficulties in any
event. Or rather it was fraught with one particular difficulty
which was that of keeping a straight face. The whole thing was
complete and utter nonsense. The client was clearly loopy and
Dirk would not have considered taking the case except for one
very important thing.
Three hundred pounds a day plus expenses.
The client had agreed to it just like that. And when Dirk
had started his usual speech to the effect that his methods,
involving as they did the fundamental interconnectedness of all
things, often led to expenses that might appear to the
untutored eye to be somewhat tangential to the matter in hand,
the client had simply waved the matter aside as trifling. Dirk
liked that in a client.
The only thing the client had insisted upon in the midst
of this almost superhuman fit of reasonableness was that Dirk
had to be there, absolutely had, had, had to be there ready,
functioning and alert, without fail, without even the merest
smidgen of an inkling of failure, at six-thirty in the morning.
Absolute.
Well, he was just going to have to see reason about that
as well. Six-thirty was clearly a preposterous time and he, the
client, obviously hadn't meant it seriously. A civilised
six-thirty for twelve noon was almost certainly what he had in
mind, and if he wanted to cut up rough about it, Dirk would
have no option but to start handing out some serious
statistics. Nobody got murdered before lunch. But nobody.
People weren't up to it. You needed a good lunch to get both
the blood-sugar and bloodlust levels up. Dirk had the figures
to prove it.
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 an omelette? 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
fettucine 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 thirtk 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 evervthing 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.

Chapter 5

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 tumed
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 aftluence, 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 loooking 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
teIephone number on an envelope full uf 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.
"Better?"
"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 nnd 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 aIl 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 trom
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.
"Don't pick it up, pick it up, pick i-
"Don't pick it up, pick it up, pick i-
"Don't pi - "
Somebody at last picked it up, the nagging repetition was at
last hushed, and now the gentle sound of a distant television
floated peacefully on the noontime air.
Dirk, however, was having a great deal of difficulty in
taking it all in. He was much more aware of taking a succession
of huge swimmy whacks to the head, which were the assaults of
guilt. It was not the normal background-noise type of guilt
that comes from just being alive this far into the twentieth
century, and which Dirk was usually fairly adept at dealing
with. It was an actual stunning sense of, "this specific
terrible thing is specifically and terribly my fault". All the
normal mental moves wouldn't let him get out of the path of the
huge pendulum.
Wham it came again, whizz, wham, again and
again,
wham
wham, wham.
He tried to remember any of the details of what his late
client (wham, wham) had said (wham) to him
(wham), but it was (wham) virtually impossible
(wham) with all this whamming taking place
(wham). The man had said (wham) that (Dirk took a
deep breath) (wham) he was being pursued (wham)
by (wham) a large, hairy, green-eyed monster armed with
a scythe.

Wham!
Dirk had secretly smiled to himself about this.
Whim, wham, whim, wham, whim, wham!
And had thought, "What a silly man."
Whim, whim, whim, whim, wham!
A scythe (whom), and a contract (wham).

He hadn't known, or even had the faintest idea as to what
the contract was for.
"Of course," Dirk had thought (wham).
But he had a vague feeling that it might have something to
do with a potato. There was a bit of a complicated story
attached to that (whim, whim, whim).
Dirk had nodded seriously at this point (wham), and
made a reassuring tick (wham) on a pad which he kept on
his desk (wham) for the express purpose of making
reassuring ticks on (wham, wham, wham). He had prided
himself at that moment on having managed to convey the
impression that he had made a tick in a small box marked
"Potatoes".
Wham, wham, wham, wham
Mr Anstey had said he would explain further about the
potatoes when Dirk arrived to carry out his task.
And Dirk had promised (whom), easily (wham),
casually (wham), with an airy wave of his hand (wham,
wham, wham
), to be there at six-thirty in the morning
(wham), because the contract (wham) fell due at
seven o'clock.
Dirk remembered having made another tick in a notional
"Potato contract falls due at 7.00 a.m." box. (Wh...)
He couldn't handle all this whamming any more. He couldn't
blame himself for what had happened. Well, he could. Of course
he could. He did. It was, in fact, his fault (wham). The
point was that he couldn't continue to blame himself for what
had happened and think clearly about it, which he was going to
have to do. He would have to dig this horrible thing
(wham) up by the roots, and if he was going to be fit to
do that he had somehow to divest himself (wham) of this
whamming.
A huge wave of anger surged over him as he contemplated
his predicament and the tangled distress of his life. He hated
this neat patio. He hated all this sundial stuff, and all these
neatly painted windows, all these hideously trim roofs. He
wanted to blame it all on the paintwork rather than on himself,
on the revoltingly tidy patio paving-stones, on the sheer
disgusting abomination of the neatly repointed brickwork.
"Excuse me..."
"What?" He whirled round, caught unawares by this
intrusion into his private raging of a quiet polite voice.
"Are you connected with...?" The woman indicated all the
unpleasantness and the lower-ground-floorness and the horrible
sort of policeness of things next door to her with a little
floating movement of her wrist. Her wrist wore a red bracelet
which matched the frames of her glasses. She was looking over
the garden wall from the house on the right, with an air of
stightly anxious distaste.
Dirk glared at her speechlessly. She looked about forty-
somethingish and neat, with an instant and unmistakable quality
of advertising about her.
She gave a troubled sigh.
"I know it's probably all very terrible and everything,"
she said, "but do you think it will take long? We only called
in the police because the noise of that ghastly record was
driving us up the wall. It's all a bit..."
She gave him a look of silent appeal, and Dirk decided
that it could all be her fault. She could, as far as he was
concerned, take the blame for everything while he sorted it
out. She deserved it; if only for wearing a bracelet like that.
Without a word, he turned his back on her, and took his
fury back inside the house where it began rapidly to freeze
into something hard and efficient.
"Gilks!" he said. "Your smart-alec suicide theory. I like
it. It works for me. And I think I see how the clever bastard
pulled it off. Bring me pen. Bring me paper."
He sat down with a flourish at the cherrywood farmhouse
table which occupied the centre of the rear portion of the room
and deftly sketched out a scheme of events which involved a
number of household or kitchen implements, a swinging, weighted
light fitting, some very precise timing, and hinged on the
vital fact that the record turntable was Japanese.
"That should keep your forensic chaps happy," said Dirk
briskly to Gilks. The forensic chaps glanced at it, took in its
salient points and liked them. They were simple, implausible,
and of exactly that nature which a coroner who liked the same
sort of holidays in Marbella which they did would be sure to
relish.
"Unless," said Dirk casually, "you are interested in the
notion that the deceased had entered into some kind of
diabolical contract with a supernatural agency for which
payment was now being exacted?"
The forensic chaps glanced at each other and shook their
heads. There was a strong sense from them that the morning was
wearing on and that this kind of talk was only introducing
unnecessary complications into a case which otherwise could be
well behind them before lunch.
Dirk made a satisfied shrug, peeled off his share of the
evidence and, with a final nod to the constabulary, made his
way back upstairs.
As he reached the hallway, it suddenly became apparent to
him that the gentle sounds of day-time television which he had
heard from out in the garden had previously been masked from
inside by the insistent sound of the record stuck in its
groove.
He was surprised now to realise that they were in fact
coming from somewhere upstairs in this house. With a quick look
round to see that he was not observed he stood on the bottom
step of the staircase leading to the upstairs floors of the
house and glanced up them in surprise.

Chapter 6

The stairs were carpeted with a tastefully austere matting
type of substance. Dirk quietly made his way up them, past some
tastefully dried large things in a pot that stood on the
first landing, and looked into the rooms on the first floor.
They, too, were tasteful and dried.
The larger of the two bedrooms was the only one that
showed any signs of current use. It had clearly been designed
to allow the morning light to play on delicately arranged
flowers and duvets stuffed with something like hay, but there
was a feeling that socks and used shaving heads were instead
beginning to gather the room into their grip. There was a
distinct absence of anything female in the room - the same sort
of absence that a missing picture leaves behind it on a wall.
There was an air of tension and of sadness and of things
needing to be cleaned out from under the bed.
The bathroom, which opened out from it, had a gold disc
hung on the wall in front of the lavatory, for sales of five
hundred thousand copies of a record called Hot Potato by a band
called Pugilism and the Third Autistic Cuckoo. Dirk had a vague
recollection of having read part of an interview with the
leader of the band (there were only two of them, and one of
them was the leader) in a Sunday paper. He had been asked about
their name, and he had said that there was an interesting story
about it, though it turned out not to be. "It can mean whatever
people want-it to mean," he had added with a shrug from the
sofa of his manager's office somewhere off Oxford Street.
Dirk remembered visualising the journalist nodding
politely and writing this down. A vile knot had formed in
Dirk's stomach which he had eventually softened with gin.
"Hot Potato... " thought Dirk. It suddenly occurred
to him looking at the gold disc hanging in its red frame, that
the record on which the late Mr Anstey's head had been perched
was obviously this one. Hot Potato. Don't pick it up.
What could that mean?
Whatever people wanted it to mean, Dirk thought with bed
grace.
The other thing that he remembered now about the interview
was that Pain (the leader of Pugilism and the Third Autistic
Cuckoo was called Pain) claimed to have written the lyrics down
more or less verbatim from a conversation which he or somebody
had overheard in a cafe or a sauna or an aeroplane or something
like that. Dirk wondered how the originators of the
conversation would feel to hear their words being repeated in
the circumstances in which he had just heard them.
He peered more closely at the label in the centre of the
gold record. At the top of the label it said simply, "ARRGH!",
while underneath the actual title were the writers' credits -
"Paignton, Mulville, Anstey".
Mulville was presumably the member of Pugilism and the
Third Autistic Cuckoo who wasn't the leader. And Geoff Anstey's
inclusion on the writing credits of a major-selling single was
probably what had paid for this house. When Anstey had talked
about the contract having something to do with Potato he
had assumed that Dirk knew what he meant. And he, Dirk, had as
easily assumed that Anstey was blithering. lt was very easy to
assume that someone who was talking about green-eyed monsters
with scythes was also blithering when he talked about potatoes.
Dirk sighed to himself with deep uneasiness. He took a
dislike to the neat way the trophy was hanging on the wall and
adjusted it a little so that it hung at a more humane and
untidy angle. Doing this caused an envelope to fall out from
behind the frame and flutter towards the floor. Dirk tried
unsuccessfully to catch it. With an unfit grunt he bent over
and picked the thing up.
It was a largish, cream envelope of rich, heavy paper,
roughly slit open at one end, and resealed with Sellotape. In
fact it looked as if it had been opened and resealed with fresh
layers of tape many times, an impression which was borne out by
the number of names to which the envelope had in its time been
addressed - each successively crossed out and replaced by
another.
The last name on it was that of Geoff Anstey. At least
Dirk assumed it was the last name because it was the only one
that had not been crossed out, and crossed out heavily. Dirk
peered at some of the other names, trying to make them out.
Some memory was stirred by a couple of the names which he
could just about discern, but he needed to examine the envelope
much more closely. He had been meaning to buy himself a
magnifying glass ever since he had become a detective, but had
never got around to it. He also did not possess a penknife, so
reluctantly he decided that the most prudent course was to tuck
the envelope away for the moment in one of the deeper recesses
of his coat and examine it later in privacy.
He glanced quickly behind the frame of the gold disc to
see if any other goodies might emerge but was disappointed, and
so he quit the bathroom and resumed his exploration of the
house.
The other bedroom was neat and soulless. Unused. A pine
bed, a duvet and an old battered chest of drawers that had been
revived by being plunged into a vat of acid were its main
features. Dirk pulled the door of it closed behind him, and
started to ascend the small, wobbly, white-painted stairway
that led up to an attic from which the sounds of Bugs Bunny
could be heard.
At the top of the stairs was a minute landing which opened
on one side into a bathroom so small that it would best be used
by standing outside and sticking into it whichever limb you
wanted to wash. The door to it was kept ajar by a length of
green hosepipe which trailed from the cold tap of the
wash-basin, out of the bathroom, across the landing and into
the only other room here at the top of the house.
It was an attic room with a severely pitched roof which
offered only a few spots where a person of anything approaching
average height could stand up.
Dirk stood hunched in the doorway and surveyed its
contents, nervous of what he might find amongst them. There was
a general grunginess about the place. The curtains were closed
and little light made it past them into the room, which was
otherwise illuminated only by the flickering glow of an
animated rabbit. An unmade bed with dank, screwed-up sheets was
pushed under a particularly low angle of the ceiling. Part of
the walls and the more nearly vertical surfaces of the ceiling
were covered with pictures crudely cut out of magazines.
There didn't seem to be any common theme or purpose behind
the cuttings. As well as a couple of pictures of flashy German
cars and the odd bra advertisement, there were also a badly
torn picture of a fruit flan, part of an advertisement for life
insurance and other random fragments which suggested they had
been selected and arranged with a dull, bovine indifference to
any meaning that any of them might have or effect they might
achieve.
The hosepipe curled across the floor and led around the
side of an elderly armchair pulled up in front of the
television set.
The rabbit rampaged. The glow of his rampagings played on
the frayed edges of the armchair. Bugs was wrestling with the
controls of an aeroplane which was plunging to the ground.
Suddenly he saw a button marked "Autopilot" and pressed it. A
cupboard opened and a robot pilot clambered out, took one look
at the situation and baled out. The plane hurtled on towards
the ground but, luckily, ran out of fuel just before reaching
it and so the rabbit was saved.
Dirk could also see the top of a head.
The hair of this head was dark, matted and greasy. Dirk
watched it for a long, uneasy moment before advancing slowly
into the room to see what, if anything, it was attached to. His
relief at discovering, as he rounded the armchair, that the
head was, after all, attached to a living body was a little
marred by the sight of the living body to which it was
attached.
Slumped in the armchair was a boy.
He was probably about thirteen or fourteen, and although
he didn't look ill in any specific physical way, he was
definitely not a well person. His hair sagged on his head, his
head sagged on his shoulders, and he lay in the armchair in a
sort of limp, crumpled way, as if he'd been hurled there from a
passing train. He was dressed merely in a cheap leather jacket
and sleeping-bag.
Dirk stared at him.
Who was he? What was a boy doing here watching television
in a house where someone had just been decapitated? Did he know
what had happened? Did Gilks know about him? Had Gilks even
bothered to come up here? It was, after all, several flights of
stairs for a busy policeman with a tricky suicide on his hands.
After Dirk had been standing there for twenty seconds or
so, the boy's eyes climbed up towards him, failed utterly to
acknowledge him in any way at all, and then dropped again and
locked back on to the rabbit.
Dirk was unused to making quite such a minuscule impact on
anybody. He checked to be sure that he did have his huge
leather coat and his absurd red hat on and that he was properly
and dramatically silhouetted by the light of the doorway.
He felt momentarily deflated and said, "Er... " by way of
self introduction, but it didn't get the boy's attention. He
didn't like this. The kid was deliberately and maliciously
watching television at him. He frowned. There was a kind of
steamy tension building in the room it seemed to Dirk, a kind
of difficult, hissing quality to the whole air of the place
which he did not know how to respond to. It rose in intensity
and then suddenly ended with an abrupt click which made Dirk
start.
The boy unwound himself like a slow, fat snake, leaned
sideways over the far side of the armchair and made some
elaborate unseen preparations which clearly involved, as Dirk
now realised, an electric kettle. When he resumed his earlier
splayed posture it was with the addition of a plastic pot
clutched in his right hand, from which he forked rubbery
strands of steaming gunk into his mouth.
The rabbit brought his affairs to a conclusion and gave
way to a jeering comedian who wished the viewers to buy a
certain brand of lager on the basis of nothing better than his
own hardly disinterested say-so.
Dirk felt that it was time to make a slightly greater
impression on the proceedings than he had so far managed to do.
He stepped forward dinectly into the boy's line of sight.
"Kid," Dirk said in a tone that he hoped would sound firm
but gentle and not in any way at all patronising or affected or
gauche, "I need to know who - "
He was distracted at that moment by the sight which met
him from the new position in which he was standing. On the
other side of the armchair there was a large, half full
catering-size box of Pot Noodles, a large, half full
catering-size box of Mars Bars, a half demolished pyramid of
cans of soft drink, and the end of the hosepipe. The hosepipe
ended in a plastic tap nozzle, and was obviously used for
refilling the kettle.
Dirk had simply been going to ask the boy who he was, but
seen from this angle the family resemblance was unmistakable.
He was clearly the son of the lately decapitated Geoffrey
Anstey. Perhaps this behaviour was just his way of dealing with
shock. Or perhaps he really didn't know what had happened. Or
perhaps he...
Dirk hardly liked to think.
In fact he was finding it hard to think clearly while the
television beside him was, on behalf of a toothpaste
manufacturing company, trying to worry him deeply about some of
the things which might be going on in his mouth.
"OK," he said, "I don't like to disturb you at what I know
must be a difficult and distressing time for you, but I need to
know first of all if you actually realise that this is a
difficult and distressing time for you."
Nothing.
All right, thought Dirk, time for a little judicious
toughness. He leant back against the wall, stuck his hands in
his pockets in an OK-if-that's-the-way-you-want-to-play-it
manner, stared moodily at the floor for a few seconds, then
swung his head up and let the boy have a hard look right
between the eyes.
"I have to tell you, kid," he said tersely, "your father's
dead."
This might have worked if it hadn't been for a very
popular and long-running commercial which started at that
moment. It seemed to Dirk to be a particularly astounding
example of the genre.
The opening sequence showed the angel Lucifer being hurled
from heaven into the pit of hell where he then lay on a buming
lake until a passing demon amved and gave him a can of a fizzy
soft drink called sHades. Lucifer took it and
tried it. He greedily guzzled the whole contents of the can and
then tumed to camera, slipped on some Porsche design
sunglasses, said, "Now we're really cookin'!" and lay
back basking in the glow of the burning coals being heaped
around him.
At that point an impossibly deep and growly American
voice, which sounded as if it had itself crawled from the pit
of hel1, or at least from a Soho basement drinking club to
which it was keen to return as soon as possible to marinade
itself into shape for the next voice-over, said,
"sHades. The Drink from Hell... " and the can
revolved a little to obscure the initial "s", and thus
spell "Hades".
The theology of this seemed a little confused, reflected
Dirk, but what was one tiny extra droplet of misinformation in
such a raging torrent?
Lucifer then mugged at the camera again and said, "I could
really fall for this stuff... " and just in case the
viewer had been rendered completely insensate by all these
goings-on, the opening shot of Lucifer being hurled from heaven
was briefly replayed in order to emphasise the word "fall".
The boy's attention was entirely captivated by this.
Dirk squatted down in between the boy and the screen.
"Listen to me," he began.
The boy craned his neck round to look past Dirk at the
screen. He had to redistribute his limbs in the chair in order
to be able to do this and continue to fork Pot Noodle into
himself.
"Listen," insisted Dirk again.
Dirk felt he was beginning to be in serious danger of
losing the upper hand in the situation. It wasn't merely that
the boy's attention was on the television, it was that nothing
else seemed to have any meaning or independent existence for
him at all. Dirk was merely a featureless object in the way of
the television. The boy seemed to bear him no malice, he merely
wished to see past him.
"Look, can we turn this off for a moment?" Dirk said, and
he tried not to make it sound testy.
The boy did not respond. Maybe there was a slight
stiffening of the shoulders, maybe it was a shrug. Dirk turned
around and was at a loss to find which button to push to turn
the television off. The whoIe control pane seemed to be
dedicated to the single purpose of keeping itself turned on -
there was no single button marked "on" or "off". Eventually
Dirk simply disconnected the set from the power socket on the
wall and turned back to the boy, who broke his nose.
Dirk felt his septum crunching from the terrific impact of
the boy's forehead as they both toppled heavily backwards
against the set, but the noise of the bone breaking, and the
noise of his own cry of pain as it broke was completely
obliterated by the howling screams of rage that erupted from
the boy's throat. Dirk flailed helplessly to try and protect
himself from the fury of the onslaught, but the boy was on top
with his elbow in Dirk's eye, his knees pounding first on
Dirk's ribcage, then his jaw and then on Dirk's already
traumatised nose, as he scrambled over him to reconnect the
power to the television. He then settled back comfortably into
the armchair and watched with a moody and unsettled eye as the
picture reassembled itself.
"You could at least have waited for the news," he said in
a dull voice.
Dirk gaped at him. He sat huddled on the floor, coddling
his bleeding nose in his hands, and gaped at the monstrously
disinterested creature.
"Whhfff. . . fffmmm. . . nnggh ! " he protested, and then
gave up for the time being, while he probed his nose for the
damage.
There was definitely a wobbly bit that clicked nastily
between his fingers, and the whole thing seemed suddenly to be
a horribly unfamiliar shape. He fished a handkerchief out of
his pocket and held it up to his face. Blood spread easily
through it. He staggered to his feet, brushed aside
non-existent offers of help, stomped out of the room and into
the tiny bathroom. There, he yanked the hosepipe angrily off
the tap, found a towel, soaked it in cold water and held it to
his face for a minute or two until the flow of blood gradually
slowed to a trickle and stopped. He stared at himself in the
mirror. His nose was quite definitely leaning at a slightly
rakish angle. He tried bravely to shift it, but not bravely
enough. It hurt abominably, so he contented himself with
dabbing at it a little more with the wet towel and swearing
quietly.
Then he stood there for a second or two longer, leaning
against the basin, breathing heavily, and practising saying
"All right!" fiercely into the mirror. It came out as
"Aww-bwigh!" and lacked any real authority. When he felt
sufficiently braced, or at least as braced as he was likely to
feel in the immediate future, he turned and stalked grimly back
into the den of the beast.
The beast was sitting quietly absorbing news of some of
the exciting and stimulating game shows that the evening held
in store for the determined viewer, and did not look up as Dirk
re-entered.
Dirk walked briskly over to the window and drew the
curtains sharply back, half hoping that the beast might shrivel
up shrieking if exposed to daylight, but other than wrinkling
up its nose, it did not react. A dark shadow flapped briefly
across the window, but the angle was such that Dirk could not
see what caused it.
He turned and faced the boy-beast. The midday news
bulletin was starting on television, and the boy seemed somehow
a little more open, a little more receptive to the world
outside the flickering coloured rectangle. He glanced up at
Dirk with a sour, tired look.
"Whaddayawananyway?" he said.
"I ted you whad I wad," said Dirk, fiercely but
hopelessly, "I wad...hag od a bobed...I gnow thad faith!"
Dirk's attention had switched suddenly to the television
screen, where a rather more up-to-date photograph of the
missing airline check-in girl was being shown.
"Whadayadoingere?" said the boy.
"Jjchhhhh!" said Dirk, and perched himself down on the arm
of the chair, peering intently at the face on the screen. It
had been taken about a year ago, before the girl had learnt
about corporate lipgloss. She had frizzy hair and a frumpy,
put-upon look.
"Whoareyou? Wassgoinon?" insisted the boy.
"Loog, chuddub," snapped Dirk, "I'b tryid to wodge
dthith!"
The newscaster said that the police professed themselves
to be mystified by the fact that there was no trace of Janice
Smith at the scene of the incident. They explained that there
was a limit to the number of times they could search the same
buildings, and appealed for anyone who might have a clue as to
her whereabouts to come forward.
"Thadth by segradry! Thadth Mith Pearth!" exclaimed Dirk
in astonishment.
The boy was not interested in Dirk's ex-secnetary, and
gave up trying to atttact Dirk's attention. He wriggled out of
the sleeping-bag and sloped off to the bathroom.
Dirk sat staring at the television, bewildered that he
hadn't realised before who the missing girl was. Still, there
was no reason why he should have done, he realiced. Marriage
had changed her name, and this was the first time they had
shown a photograph that actually identified her. So far he had
taken no real interest in the strange incident at the airport,
but now it demanded his attention.
The explosion was now officially designated an "Act of
God".
But, thought Dirk, what god? And why?
What god would be hanging around Terminal Two of fieathrow
Aitport trying to catch the 15.37 flight to Oslo?
After the miserable lassitude of the last few weeks, he
suddenly had a great deal that required his immediate
attention. He frowned in deep thought for a few moments, and
hardly noticed when the beast-boy snuck back in and snuggled
back into his sleeping-bag just in time for the advertisements
to start. The first one showed how a perfectly ordinary stock
cube could form the natural focus of a normal, happy family
life.
Dirk leapt to his feet, but even as he was about to start
questioning the boy again his heart sank as he looked at him.
The beast was far away, sunk back in his dark, flickering lair,
and Dirk did not feel inclined to disturb him again at the
moment.
He contented himself with barking at the unresponding
child that he would be back, and bustled heavily down the
stairs, his big leather coat flapping madly behind him.
In the hallway he encountered the loathed Gilks once more.
"What happened to you?" said the policeman sharply,
catching sight of Dirk's bruised and bulging nose.
"Ondly whad you dold me," said Dirk, innocently. "I bead
bythelf ub."
Gilks demanded to know what he had been doing, and Dirk
generously explained that there was a witness upstairs with
some interesting information to impart. He suggested that Gilks
go and have a word with him, but that it would be best if he
turned off the television first.
Gilks nodded curtly. He started to go up the stairs, but
Dirk stopped him.
"Doedth eddydthig dthrike you adth dthraydge aboud dthidth
houdth?" he said.
"What did you say?" said Gilks in irritation.
"Subbthig dthraydge," said Dirk.
"Something what?"
"Dthraydge!" insisted Dirk.
"Strange?"
"Dthadth right, dthraydge."
Gilks shrugged. "Like what?" he said.
"Id dtheemdth to be cobbleedly dthouledth."
"Completely what?"
"Dthouledth!" he tried again. "Thoul-leth! I dthigg
dthadth dverry idderedthigg!"
With that he doffed his hat politely, and swept on out of
the house and up the street, where an eagle swooped out of the
sky at him and came within a whisker of causing him to fall
under a 73 bus on its way south. For the next twenty minutes,
hideous yells and screams emanated from the top floor of the
house in Lupton Road, and caused much tension among the
neighbours. The ambulance took away the upper and lower remains
of Mr Anstey and also a policeman with a bleeding face. For a
short while after this, there was quietness.
Then another police car drew up outside the house. A lot o
"Bob's here" type of remarks floated from the house, as an
extremely large and burly policeman heaved himself out of the
car and bustled up the steps. A few minutes and a great deal of
screaming and yelling later he re-emerged also clutching his
face, and drove off in deep dudgeon, squealing his tyres in a
violent and unnecessary manner.
Twenty minutes later a van arrived from which emerged
another policeman carrying a tiny pocket television set. He
entered the house, and re-emerged a short while later leading a
docile thirteen-year-old boy, who was content with his new toy.
Once all policemen had departed, save for the single squad
car which remained parked outside to keep watch on the house, a
large, hairy, green-eyed figure emerged from its hiding place
behind one of the molecules in the large basement room.
It propped its scythe against one of the hi-fi speakers,
dipped a long, gnarled finger in the almost congealed pool of
blood that had collected on the deck of the turntable, smeared
the finger across the bottom of a sheet of thick, yellowing
paper, and then disappeared off into a dark and hidden
otherworld whistling a strange and vicious tune and returning
only briefly to collect its scythe.

Chapter 7

A little earlier in the morning, at a comfortable distance
from all these events, set at a comfortable distance from a
wellproponioned window through which cool mid-morning light
was streaming, lay an elderly one-eyed man in a white bed. A
newspaper sat like a half-collapsed tent on the floor, where it
had been hurled two minutes before, at shortly aher ten o'clock
by the clock on the bedside table.
The room was not large, but was furnished in excessively
bland good taste, as if it were a room in an expensive private
hospital or clinic, which is exactly what it was - the
Woodshead Hospital, set in its own small but well-kempt grounds
on the outskirts of a small but well-kempt village in the
Cotswolds.
The man was awake but not glad to be.
His skin was very delicately old, like finely stretched,
translucent parchment, delicately freckled. His exquisitely
frail hands lay slightly curled on the pure white linen sheets
and quivered very faintly.
His name was variously given as Mr Odwin, or Wodin, or
Odin. He was - is - a god, and furthermore he was that least
good of all gods to be alongside, a cross god. His one eye
glinted.
He was cross because of what he had been reading in the
newspapers, which was that another god had been cutting loose
and making a nuisance of himself. It didn't say that in the
papers, of course. It didn't say, "God cuts loose, makes
nuisance of himself in airport," it merely described the
resulting devastation and was at a loss to draw any meaningful
conclusions from it.
The story had been deeply unsatisfactory in all sorts of
ways, on account of its perplexing inconclusiveness, its
goingnowhereness and the irritating (from the newspapers' point
of view) lack of any good solid carriage. There was of course a
mystery attached to the lack of carnage, but a newspaper
preferred a good whack of carnage to a mere mystery any day of
the week.
Odin, however, had no such difficulty in knowing what was
going on. The accounts had "Thor" written all over them in
letters much too big for anyone other than another god to see.
He had thrown this morning's paper aside in irritation, and was
now trying to concentrate on his relaxation exercises in order
to avoid getting too disturbed about all this. These involved
breathing in in a certain way and breathing out in a certain
other way and were good for his blood pressure and so on. It
was not as if he was about to die or anything - ha! - but there
was no doubt that at his time of life - ha! - he preferred to
take things easy and look after himself.
Best of all he liked to sleep.
Sleeping was a very important activity for him. He liked
to sleep for longish periods, great swathes of time. Merely
sleeping overnight was not taking the business seriously. He
enjoyed a good night's sleep and wouldn't miss one for the
world, but he didn't regard it as anything even half
approaching enough. He liked to be asleep by half past eleven
in the morning if possible, and if that could come directly
after a nice leisurely lie-in then so much the better. A little
light breakfast and a quick trip to the bathroom while fresh
linen was applied to his bed is really all the astivity he
liked to undertake, and he took care that it didn't jangle the
sleepiness out of him and thus disturb his afternoon of
napping. Sometimes he was able to spend an entire week asleep,
and this he regarded as a good snooze. He had also slept
through the whole of 1986 and hadn't missed it.
But he knew to his deep disgruntlement that he would
shortly have to arise and undertake a sacred and irritating
trust. Sacred, because it was godlike, or at least involved
gods, and irritating because of the particular god that it
involved.
Sneakily, he twitched the curtains at a distance, using
nothing but his divine will. He sighed heavily. He needed to
think and, what was more, it was time for his morning visit to
the bathroom.
He rang for the orderly.
The orderly arrived promptly in his well-pressed loose
green tunic, good-morninged cheerfully, and bustled around
locating bedroom slippers and dressing-gown. He helped Odin out
of bed, which was a little like rolling a stuffed crow out of a
box, and escorted him slowly to the bathroom. Odin walked
stiffly, like a head hung between two heavy stilts draped in
striped Viyella and white towelling. The orderly knew Odin as
Mr Odwin, and didn't realise that he was a god, which was
something that Odin tended to keep quiet about, and wished that
Thor would too.
Thor was the God of Thunder and, frankly, acted like it.
It was inappropriate. He seemed unwilling, or unable, or maybe
just too stupid to understand or accept...Odin stopped himself.
He sensed that he was beginning mentally to rant. He would have
to consider calmly what next to do about Thor, and he was on
his way to the right place for a good think.
As soon as Odin had completed his stately hobble to the
bathroom door, two nurses hurried in and stripped and remade
the bed with immense precision, patting down the fresh linen,
pulling it taut, turning it and tucking it. One of the nurses,
clearly the senior, was plump and matronly, the other younger,
darker and more generally bird-like. The newspaper was whisked
off the tloor and neatly refolded, the floor was briskly
Hoovered, the curtains hooked back, the flowers and the
untouched fruit replaced with fresh flowers and fresh fruit
that would, like every piece of fruit before them, remain
untouched.
When after a little while the old god's morning ablutions
had been completed and the bathroom door reopened, the room had
been transformed. The actual differences were tiny, of course,
but the effect was of a subtle but magical transformation into
something cool and fresh. Odin nodded in quiet satisfaction to
see it. He made a little show of inspecting the bed, like a
monarch inspecting a line of soldiers.
"Is it well tucked?" he asked in his old and whispery
voice.
"It is very well tucked, Mr Odwin," said the senior nurse
with an obsequious beam.
"Is it neatly turned?" It clearly was. This was merely a
ritual.
"Turned very neatly indeed, Mr Odwin," said the nurse, "I
supervised the turning down of the sheets myself."
"I'm glad of that, Sister Bailey, very glad," said Odin.
"You have a fine eye for a trimly turned fold. It alarms me to
know what I shall do without you."
"Well, I'm not about to go anywhere, Mr Odwin," said
Sister Bailey, oozing happy reassurance.
"But you won't last for ever, Sister Bailey," said Odin.
It was a remark that puzzled Sister Bailey on the times she had
heard it, because of its apparent extreme callousness.
"Sure, and none of us lasts for over, Mr Odwin," she said
gently as she and the other nurse between them managed the
difficult task of lifting Odin back into hed while keeping his
dignity intact.
"You're Irish aren't you, Sister Bailey?" he asked, once
he was properly settled.
"I am indeed so, Mr Odwin."
"Knew an Irishman once. Finn something. Told me a lot of
stuff I didn't need to know. Never told me about the linen.
Still know now."
He nodded curtly at this memory and lowered his head
stiffly back on to the firmly plumped up pillows and ran the
back of his finely freckled hand over the folded-back linen
sheet. Quite simply he was in love with linen. Clean, lightly
starched, white Irish linen, pressed, folded, tucked - the
words themselves were almost a litany of desire for him. In
centuries nothing had obsessed him or moved him so much as
linen now did. He could not for the life of him understand how
he could ever have cared for anything else.
Linen.
And sleep. Sleep and linen. Sleep in linen. Sleep.
Sister Bailey regarded him with a sort of proprietary
fondness. She did not know that he was a god as such, in fact
she thought he was probably an old film producer or Nazi war
criminal. Certainly he had an accent she couldn't quite place
and his careless civility, his natural selfishness and his
obsession with personal hygiene spoke of a past that was rich
with horrors.
If she could have been transported to where she might see
her secretive patient enthroned, warrior father of the wamor
Gods of Asgard, she would not have been surprised. That is not
quite true, in fact. She would have been startled quite out of
her wits. But she would at least have recognised that it was
consistent with the qualities she perceived in him, once she
had recovered from the shock of discovering that virtually
everything the human race had ever chosen to believe in was
true. Or that it continued to be true long after the human race
particularly needed it to be true any more.
Odin dismissed his medical attendants with a gesture,
having first asked for his personal assistant to be found and
sent to him once more.
This caused Sister Bailey to tighten her lips just a very
little. She did not like Mr Odwin's personal assistant, general
factotum, manservant, call him what you will. His eyes were
malevolent, he made her jump, and she strongly suspected him of
making unspeakabie suggestions to her nurses during their tea
breaks.
He had what Sister Bailey supposed was what people meant
by an olive complexion, in that it was extraordinarily close to
being green. Sister Bailey was convinced that it was not right
at all.
She was of course the last person to judge somebody by the
colour of their skin - or if not absolutely the last, she had
at least done it as recently as yesterday afternoon when an
African diplomat had been brought in to have some gallstones
removed and she had conceived an instant resentment of him. She
didn't like him. She couldn't say exactly what it was she
didn't like about him, because she was a nurse, not a
taxi-driver, and she wouldn't let her personal feelings show
for an instant. She was much too professional, much too good at
her job, and treated everyone with a more or less equal
efficient and cheerful courtesy, even, she thought - and a
profound iciness settled on her at this point - even Mr Rag.
"Mr Rag" was the name of Mr Odwin's personal assistant.
There was nothing she could do about it. It was not her place
to criticise Mr Odwin's personal arrangements. But if it had
been her business, which it wasn't, then she would greatly have
preferred it, and not just for herself, but for Mr Odwin's own
well-being as well, which was the important thing, if he could
have employed someone who didn't give her the absolute
heebie-jeebies, that was all.
She thought no more about it, merely went to look for him.
She had been relieved to discover when she came on duty this
morning that Mr Rag had left the premises the previous night,
but had then, with a keen sense of disappointment, spotted him
returning about an hour or so ago.
She found him exactly where he was not supposed to be. He
was squatting on one of the seats in the visitors' waiting-room
wearing what looked horribly like a soiled and discarded
doctor's gown that was much too big for him. Not only that, but
he was playing a thinly unmusical tune on a sort of pipe that
he had obviously carved out of a large disposable hypodermic
syringe which he absolutely should not have had.
He glanced up at her with his quick, dancing eyes, grinned
and continued to tootle and squeak, only significantly louder.
Sister Bailey ran through in her mind all the things that
it was completely pointless to say about either the roat or the
syringe, or about him being in the visitors' room frightening,
or preparing to frighten, the visitors. She knew she wouldn't
be able to stand the air of injured innocence with which he
would reply, or the preposterous absurdity of his answers. Her
only course was simply to let it pass and just get him away
from the room and out of the way as quickly as possible.
"Mr Odwin would like to see you," she said. She tried to
jam some of her normal lilting quality into her voice, but it
just wouldn't go. She wished his eyes would stop dancing like
that. Apart from finding it highly disturbing from both a
medical and aesthetic point of view she also could not help but
be piqued by the impression it conveyed that there were at
least thirty-seven things in the room more interesting than
her.
He gazed at her in this disconcerting manner for a few
seconds then, muttering that there was no peace for the wicked,
not even the extremely wicked, he pushed past Sister Bailey and
skedaddled up the corridor to receive instructions from his
lord and master, quickly, before his lord and master fell
asleep.

Chapter 8

By the end of the morning Kate had discharged herself from
hospital. There were some initial difficulties involved in this
because first the ward sister and then the doctor in charge of
Kate's case were adamant that she was in no fit state to leave.
She had only just emerged from a minor coma and she needed
care, she needed -
"Pizza - " insisted Kate.
- rest, she needed -
"- my own home, and fresh air. The air in here is
horrible. It smells like a vacuum cleaner's armpit."
- further medication, and should definitely remain under
observation for another day or so until they were satisfied
that she had made a full recovery.
At least, they were fairly adamant. During the course of
the morning Kate demanded and got a telephone and started
trying to order pizza to be delivered to her ward. She phoned
around all of the least co-operative pizza restaurants she knew
in London, harangued them, then made some noisily unsuccessful
attempts to muster a motorbike to roam around the West End and
try and pick up for her an American Hot with a list of
additional peppers and mushrooms and cheeses which the
controller of the courier service refused even to attempt to
remember, and after an hour or so of this sort of behaviour the
objections to Kate discharging herself from the hospital
gradually fell away like petals from an autumn rose.
And so, a little after lunchtime, she was standing on a
bleak West London street feeling weak and shaky but in charge
of herself. She had with her the empty, tattered remains of the
garment bag which she had refused to relinquish, and also a
small scrap of paper in her purse, which had a single name
scribbled on it.
She hailed a taxi and sat in the back with her eyes closed
most of the way back to her home in Primrose Hill. She climbed
up the stairs and let herself into her top-tloor flat. There
were ten messages on her answering machine, which she simply
erased without listening to.
She threw open the window in her bedroom and for a moment
or two leaned out of it at the rather dangerous and awkward
angle which allowed her to see a patch of the park. It was a
small comer patch, with just a couple of plane trees standing
in it. The backs of some of the intervening houses framed it,
or rather, just failed totally to obscure it, and made it very
personal and private to Kate in a way which a vast, sweeping
vista would not have been.
On one occasion she had gone to this corner of the park
and walked around the invisible perimeter that marked out the
limits of what she could see, and had come very close to
feeling that this was her own domain. She had even patted the
plane trees in a proprietorial sort of way, and had then sat
beneath them watching the sun going down over London - over its
badly spoiled skyline and its non-delivering pizza restaurants
- and had come away with a profound sense of something or
other, though she wasn't quite certain what. Still, she had
told herself, these days she should feel grateful for a
profound sense of anything at all, however unspecific.
She hauled herself in from the window, left it wide open
in spite of the chill of the outside air, padded through into
the small bathroom and ran the bath. It was a bath of the
sprawling Edwardian type which took up a wonderfully
disproportionate amount of the space available, and encompassed
most of the rest of the room with cream-painted pipes. The taps
seethed. As soon as the room was sufficiently full of steam to
be warm, Kate undressed and then went and opened the large
bathroom cupboard.
She felt faintly embarrassed by the sheer profusion of
things she had for putting in baths, but she was for some
reason incapable of passing any chemist or herb shop without
going in to be seduced by some glass-stoppered bottle of
something blue or green or orange and oily that was supposed to
restore the natural balance of some vague substance she didn't
even know she was supposed to have in her pores.
She paused, trying to choose.
Something pink? Something with extra Vitamin B? Vitamin
B12? B13? Just the number of things with different types of
Vitamin B in them was an embarrassment of choice in itself.
There were powders as well as oils, tubes of gel, even packets
of some kind of pungent smelling seed that was meant to be good
for some obscure part of you in some arcane way.
How about some of the green crystals? One day, she had
told herself in the past, she would not even bother trying to
choose, but would simply put a bit of everything in. When she
really felt in need of it. She rather thought that today was
the day, and with a sudden reviving rush of pleasure she set
about puaing a drop or two of everything in the cupboard into
the seething bath until it was confused with mingling, muddying
colours and verging on the glutinous to touch.
She turned off the taps, went to her handbag for a moment,
then returned and lowered herself into the bath, where she lay
with her eyes closed, breathing slowly for fully three minutes
before at last turning her attention to the scrap of paper she
had brought with her from the hospital.
It had one word on it, and it was a word she had dragged
out of an oddly reluctant young nurse who had taken her
temperature that morning.
Kate had questioned her about the big man. The big man
whom she had encountered at the airport, whose body she had
seen in a nearby side ward in the early hours of the night.
"Oh no," the nurse had said, "he wasn't dead. He was just
in some sort of coma."
Could she see him? Kate had asked. What was his name?
She had tried to ask idly, in passing as it were, which
was a difficult trick to pull off with a thermometer in her
mouth, and she wasn't at all certain she had succeeded. The
nurse had said that she couldn't really say, she wasn't really
meant to talk about other patients. And anyway, the man wasn't
there any more, he had been taken somewhere else. They had sent
an ambulance to collect him and take him somewhere else.
This had taken Kate considerably by surprise.
Where had they taken him? What was this special place? But
the nurse had been unwilling to say anything much more, and a
second or two later had been summoned away by the Sister. The
only word the nurse had said was the one that Kate had then
scribbled down on the piece of paper she was now looking at.
The word was "Woodshead".
Now that she was more relaxed she had a feeling that the
name was familiar to her in some way, though she could not
remember where she had heard it.
The instant she remembered, she could not stay in the bath
any longer, but got out and made straight for the telephone,
pausing only briefly to shower all the gunk off her.

Chapter 9

The big man awoke and tried to look up, but could hardly
raise his head. He tried to sit up but couldn't do that either.
He felt as if he'd been stuck to the floor with superglue and
after a few seconds he discovered the most astounding reason
for this.
He jerked his head up violently, yanking out great tufts
of yellow hair which stayed painfully stuck to the floor, and
looked around him. He was in what appeared to be a derelict
warehouse, probably an upper floor judging by the wintry sky he
could see creeping past the grimy, shattered windows.
The ceilings were high and hung with cobwebs built by
spiders who did not seem to mind that most of what they caught
was crumbling plaster and dust. They were supported by pillars
made from upright steel joists on which the dirty old cream
paint was bubbled and flaking, and these in turn stood on a
floor of battered old oak on to which he had clearly been
glued. Extending out for a foot or two in a rough oval all
around his naked body the floor glistened darkly and dully.
Thin, nostril-cleaning fumes rose from it. He could not believe
it. He roared with rage, tried to wriggle and shake himself but
succeeded only in tugging painfully at his skin where it was
stuck fast to the oak planks.
This had to be the old man's doing.
He threw his head back hard against the floor in a blow
that cracked the boards and made his ears sing. He roared again
and took some furious satisfaction in making as much hopeless,
stupid noise as he could. He roared until the steel pillars
rang and the cracked remains of the windows shattered into
finer shards. Then, as he threw his head angrily from one side
to the other he caught sight of his sledge-hammer leaning
against the wall a few feet from him, heaved it up into the air
with a word, and sent it hurtling round the great space,
beating and clanging on every pillar until the whole building
reverberated like a mad gong.
Another word and the hammer flew back at him, missed his
head by a hand's-width and punched straight down through the
floor, shattering the wood and the plaster below.
In the darker space beneath him the hammer spun, and swung
round in a slow heavy parabola as bits of plaster fell about it
and rattled on the concrete floor below. Then it gathered a
violent momentum and hurtled back up through the ceiling,
smacking up a stack of startled splinters as it punched through
another oak floorboard a hand's-width from the soles of the big
man's feet.
It soared up into the air, hung there for a moment as if
its weight had suddenly vanished, then, deftly flicking its
short handle up above its head, it drove hard back down through
the tloor again - then up again, then down again, punching
holes in a splintered ring around its master until, with a long
heavy groan, the whole oval section of punctured floor gave way
and plunged, twisting, through the air. It shattered itself
against the floor below amidst a rain of plaster debris, from
which the figure of the big man then emerged, staggering,
flapping at the dusty air and coughing. His back, his arms and
his legs were still covered with great splintered hunks of oak
flooring, but at least he was able to move. He leant the flat
of his hands against the wall and violently coughed some of the
dast from his lungs.
As he turned back, his hammer danced out of the air
towards him, then suddenly evaded his grasp and skidded
joyfully off across the floor striking sparks from the concrete
with its great head, flipped up and parked itself against a
nearby pillar at a jaunty angle.
In front of him the shape of a large Coca-Cola vending
machine loomed through the settling cloud of dust. He regarded
it with the gravest suspicion and worry. It stood there with a
sort of glazed, blank look to it, and had a note from his
father stuck on the front panel saying whatever he was doing,
stop it. It was signed "You-know-who", but this had been
crossed out and first the word "Odin" and then in larger
letters "Your Father" had been substituted. Odin never ceased
to make absolutely clear his view of his son's intellectual
accomplishments. The big man tore the note off and stared at it
in anger. A postscript added darkly "Remember Wales. You don't
want to go through all that again." He screwed the note up and
hurled it out of the nearest window, where the wind whipped it
up and away. For a moment he thought he heard an odd squeaking
noise, but it was probably just the blustering of the wind as
it whistled between the nearby derelict buildings.
He turned and walked to the window and stared out of it in
a belligerent sulk. Glued to the floor. At his age. What the
devil was that supposed to mean? "Keep your head down," was
what he guessed. "If you don't keep it down, I'll have to keep
it down for you." That was what it meant. "Stick to the
ground."
He remembered now the old man saying exactly that to him
at the time of all the unpleasantness with the Phantom fighter
jet. "Why can't you just stick to the ground?" he had said. He
could imagine the old man in his soft-headed benign malice
thinking it very funny to make the lesson so literal.
Rage began to rumble menacingly inside him but he pushed
it down hard. Very worrying things had recently begun happening
when he got angry and he had a bad feeling, looking back at the
Coca-Cola vending machine, that another of those very worrying
things must have just happened. He stared at it and fretted.
He felt ill.
He had felt ill a lot of late, and he found it impossible
to discharge what were left of his godly duties when he felt he
was suffering from a sort of continual low-grade flu. He
experienced headaches, dizzy spells, guilt and all the sorts of
ailments that were featured so often in television
advertisements. He even suffered terrifying blackouts whenever
the great rage gripped him.
He always used to have such a wonderful time getting
angry. Great gusts of marvellous anger would hurl him through
life. He felt huge. He felt flooded with power and light and
energy. He had always been provided with such wonderful things
to get angry about - immense acts of provocation or betrayal,
people hiding the AtIantic ocean in his helmet, dropping
continents on him or getting drunk and pretending to be trees.
Stuff you could really work up a rage about and hit things. In
short he had felt good about being a Thunder God. Now suddeniy
it was headaches, nervous tension, nameless anxieties and
guilt. These were new experiences for a god, and not pleasant
ones.
"You look ridiculous!"
The voice screeched out and affected Thor like fingernails
scratched across a blackboard lodged in the back of his brain.
It was a mean voice, a spiteful, jeering voice, a cheap white
nylon shirt of a voice, a shiny-trousered pencil moustache of a
voice, a voice, in short, which Thor did not like. He reacted
very badly to it at the best of times, and was particularly
provoked to have to hear it while standing naked in the middle
of a decrepit warehouse with large sections of an oak floor
still stuck to his back.
He spun round angrily. He wanted to be able to turn round
calmly and with crushing dignity, but no such strategy ever
worked with this creature, and since he, Thor, would only end
up feeling humiliated and ridiculous whatever postune he
adopted, he might as well go with one he felt comfortable with.
"Toe Rag!" he roared, yanked his hammer spinning into the
air and hurled it with immense, stunning force at the small
creature who was squatting complacently in the shadows on top
of a small heap of rubble, leaning forward a little.
Toe Rag caught the hammer and placed it neatly on top of
the pile of Thor's clothes that lay next to him. He grinned,
and allowed a stray shaft of sunlight to glitter on one of his
teeth. These things don't happen by accident. Toe Rag had spent
some time while Thor was unconscious working out how long it
would take him to recover, then industriously moving the pile
of rubble to exactly this spot, checking the height and then
calculating the exact angle at which to lean. As a provocateur
he regarded himself as a professional.
"Did you do this to me?" roared Thor. "Did you - "
Thor searched for any way of saying "glue me to the floor"
that didn't sound like "glue me to floor", but eventually the
pause got too long and he had to give up.
"- glue me to the floor?" he demanded at last. He wished
he hadn't asked such a stupid question.
"Don't even answer that!" he added angrily and wished he
hadn't said that either. He stamped his foot and shook the
foundations of the building a little just to make the point. He
wasn't certain what the point was, but he felt that it had to
be made. Some dust settled gently around him.
Toe Rag watched him with his dancing, glittering eyes.
"I merely carry out the instructions given to me by your
father," he said in a grotesque parody of obsequiousness.
"It seems to me," said Thor, "that the instructions my
father has been giving since you entered his service have been
very odd. I think you have some kind of evil grip on him. I
don't know what kind of evil grip it is, but it's definitely a
grip, and it's definitely..." synonyms failed him "...evil," he
concluded.
Toe Rag reacted like an iguana to whom someone had just
complained about the wine.
"Me?" he protested. "How can I possibly have a grip on
your father? Odin is the greatest of the Gods of Asgard, and I
am his devoted servant in all things. Odin says, `Do this,' and
I do it. Odin says, `Go there,' and I go there. Odin says, `Go
and get my big stupid son out of hospital before he causes any
more trouble, and then, I don't know, glue him to the floor or
something,' and I do exactly as he asks. I am merely the most
humble of functionaries. However small or menial the task,
Odin's bidding is what I am there to perform."
Thor was not sufficiently subtle a student of human nature
or, for that matter, divine or goblin nature, to be able to
argue that this was in fact a very powerful grip to hold over
anybody, particularly a fallible and pampered old god. He just
knew that it was all wrong.
"Well then," he shouted, "take this message back to my
father, Odin. Tell him that I, Thor, the God of Thunder, demand
to meet him. And not in his damned hospital either! I'm not
going to hang about reading magazines and looking at fruit
while he has his bed changed! Tell him that Thor, the God of
Thunder, will meet Odin, the Father of the Gods of Asgard,
tonight, at the Challenging Hour in the Halls of Asgard!"
"Again?" said Toe Rag, with a sly glance sideways at the
Coca-Cola vending machine.
"Er, yes," said Thor. "Yes!" he repeated in a rage.
"Again!"
Toe Rag made a tiny sigh, such as one who felt resigned to
carrying out the bidding of a temperamental simpleton might
make, and said, "Well, I'll tell him. I don't suppose he will
be best pleased."
"It is no matter of yours whether he is pleased or not!"
shouted Thor, disturbing the foundations of the building once
more. "This is between my father and myself! You may think
yourself very clever, Toe Rag, and you may think that I am not
- "
Toe Rag arched an eyebrow. He had prepared for this
moment. He stayed silent and merely let the stray beatn of
sunlight glint on his dancing eyes. It was a silence of the
most profound eloquence.
"I may not know what you'to up to, Toe Rag, I may not know
a lot of things, but I do know one thing. I know that I am
Thor, the God of Thunder, and that I will not be made a fool of
by a goblin!"
"Well," said Toe Rag with a light grin, "when you know two
things I expect you'll be twice as clever. Remember to put your
clothes on before you go out." He gestured casually at the pile
beside him and departed.

Chapter 10

The trouble with the sort of shop that sells things like
magnifying glasses and penknives is that they tend also to sell
all kinds of other fascinating things, like the quite
extraordinary device with which Dirk eventually emerged after
having been hopelessly unable to decide between the knife with
the built-in Philips screwdriver, toothpick and ball-point pen
and the one with the 13-tooth gristle saw and the tig-welded
rivets.
The magnifying glasses had held him in thrall for a short
while, particularly the 25-diopter, high-index,
vacuumdeposited, gold-coated glass model with the integral handle
and mount and the notchless seal glazing, but then Dirk had
happened to catch sight of a small electronic I Ching
calculator and he was lost.
He had never before even guessed at the existence of such
a thing. And to be able to move from total ignorance of
something to total desire for it, and then actually to own the
thing all within the space of about forty seconds was, for
Dirk, something of an epiphany.
The electronic I Ching calculator was badly made. It had
probably been manufactured in whichever of the South-East Asian
countries was busy tooling up to do to South Korea what South
Korea was busy doing to Japan. GIue technology had obviously
not progressed in that country to the point where things could
be successfully held together with it. Already the back had
half fallen off and needed to be stuck back on with Sellotape.
It was much like an ordinary pocket calculator, except
that the LCD screen was a little larger than usual, in order to
accommodate the abridged judgements of King Wen on each of the
sixty-four hexagrams, and also the commentaries of his son, the
Duke of Chou, on each of the lines of each hexagram. These were
unusual texts to see marching across the display of a pocket
calculator, particularly as they had been translated from the
Chinese via the Japanese and seemed to have enjoyed many
adventures on the way.
The device also functioned as an ordinary calculator, but
only to a limited degree. It could handle any calculation which
returned an answer of anything up to "4".
"1+1" it could manage ("2"), and "1+2" ("3") and "2+2"
("4") or "tan 74" ("3.4874145"), but anything above "4" it
represented merely as "A Suffusion of Yellow". Dirk was not
certain if this was a programming error or an insight beyond
his ability to fathom, but he was crazy about it anyway, enough
to hand over ё20 of ready cash for the thing.
"Thank you, sir," said the proprietor. "It's a nice piece
that. I think you'll be happy with it."
"I ab," said Dirk.
"Glad to hear it, sir," replied the proprietor. "Do you
know you've broken your nose?"
Dirk looked up from fawning on his new possession.
"Yedth," he said testily, "obf courth I dknow."
The man nodded, satisfied.
"Just that a lot of my customers wouldn't always know
about a thing like that," he explained.
Dirk thanked him tersely and humed out with his purchase.
A few minutes later he took up residence at the small comer
table of an Islington cafи, ordered a small but incredibly
strong cup of coffee; and attempted to take stock of his day. A
moment's reflection told him that he was almost certainly going
to need a small but incredibly strong beer as well, and he
attempted to add this to his order.
"A wha?" said the waiter. His hair was very black and
filled with brilliantine. He was tall, incredibly fit and too
cool to listen to customers or say consonants.
Dirk repeated his order, but what with having the cafи's
music system, a broken nose, and the waiter's insuperable cool
to contend with, he eventually found it simpler to write out
the order on a napkin with a stub of pencil. The waiter peered
at it in an offended manner, and left.
Dirk exchanged a friendly nod with the girl sitting half
reading a book at the next table, who had watched this exchange
with sympathy. Then he set about laying out his morning's
acquisitions on the table in front of him - the newspaper, the
electronic I Ching calculator and the envelope which he had
retrieved from behind the gold disc on Geoffrey Anstey's
bathroom wall. He then spent a minute or two dabbing at his
nose with a handkerchief, and prodding it tenderly to see how
much it hurt, which turned out to be quite a lot. He sighed and
stuffed the handkerchief back in his pocket.
A few seconds later the waiter returned bearing a herb
omelette and a single breadstick. Dirk explained that this
wasn't what he had ordered. The waiter shrugged and said that
it wasn't his fault.
Dirk had no idea what to say to this, and said so. He was
still having a great deal of difficulty speaking. The waiter
asked Dirk if he knew that he had broken his nose and Dirk said
that yedth, dthagg you berry budge, he did. The waiter said
that his friend Neil had once broken his nose and Dirk said
that he hobed it hurd like hell, which seemed to draw the
conversation to a close. The waiter took the omelette and left,
vowing never to return.
When the girl sitting at the next table looked away for a
moment, Dirk leaned over and took her coffee. He knew that he
was perfectly safe doing this because she would simply not be
able to believe that this had happened. He sat sipping at the
lukewarm cup and casting his mind back over the day.
He knew that before consulting the I Ching, even an
electronic one, he should try and compose his thoughts and
allow them to settle calmly.
This was a tough one.
However much he tried to clear his mind and think in a
calm and collected way, he was unable to stop Geoffrey Anstey's
head revolving incessantly in his mind. It revolved
disapprovingly, as if pointing an accusing finger at Dirk. The
fact that it did not have an accusing finger with which to
point only served to drive the point it was trying to make home
all the harder.
Dirk screwed up his eyes and attempted to concentrate
instead on the problem of the mysteriously vanished Miss
Pearce, but was unable to get much of a grip on it. When she
had used to work for him she would often disappear mysteriously
for two or three days at a time, but the papers didn't make any
kind of fuss about it then. Admittedly, there weren't things
exploding around her at the time, at least, not that he was
aware of. She had never mentioned anything exploding
particularly.
Furthermore, whenever he thought of her face, which he had
last seen on the television set in Geoffrey Anstey's house, his
thoughts tended instantly to sink towards the head which was
busy revolving thirty-three and a third times a minute three
floors beneath it. This was not conducive to the calm and
contemplative mood he was seeking. Nor was the very loud music
on the cafи's music system.
He sighed, and stai-ed at the electronic I Ching
calculator.
If he wanted to get his thoughts into some kind of order
then maybe chronological order would be as good a one as any.
He decided to cast his mind back to the beginning of the day,
before any of these appalling things had happened, or at least,
before they'd happened to him.
First there had been the fridge.
It seemed to him that by comparison with everything else,
the problem of what to do about his fridge had now shrunk to
fairly manageable proportions. It still provoked a discemible
twinge of fear and guilt, but here, he thought, was a problem
which he could face up to with relative calm.
The little book of instructions suggested that he should
simply concentrate "soulfully" on the question which was
"besieging" him, write it down, ponder on it, enjoy the
silence, and then once he had achieved inner harmony and
tranquillity he should push the red button.
There wasn't a red button, but there was a blue button
marked "Red", and this Dirk took to be the one.
He concentrated for a while on the question, then looked
through his pockets for a piece of paper, but was unable to
find one. In the end he wrote his question, "Should I buy a new
fridge?" on a corner of his napkin. Then he took the view that
if he was going to wait until he had achieved inner harmony and
tranquillity he could be there all night, so he went ahead and
pushed the blue button marked "Red" anyway. A symbol flashed up
in a corner of the screen, a hexagram which looked like this:

************ ***********
*************************
************ ***********
************ ***********
************ ***********
*************************
3 : CHUN

the I Ching calculator then scrolled this text Across its
tiny LCD display:

"THE JUDGEMENT OF KING WEN:
"Chun Signifies Difficulties At Outset, As Of Blade
Of

Grass Pushing Up Against Stone. The Time Is Full
Of

Irregularities And Obscurities: Superior Man Will
Adjust

His Measures As In Sorting The Threads Of The Warp
And Woof. Firm Correctness Will Bring At Last
Success.

Early Advances Should Only Be Made With Caution.
There Will Be Advantage In Appointing Feudal
Princes.

"LINE 6 CHANGES:
"THE COMMENTARY OF THE DUKE OF CHOU:
"The Horses And The Chariot Obliged To Retreat.
Streams Of Bloody Tears Will Flow."

Dirk considered this for a few moments, and then decided
that on balance it appeared to be a vote in favour of getting
the new fridge, which, by a staggering coincidence, was the
course of action which he himself favoured.
There was a pay phone in one of the dark corners where
waiters slouched moodily at one another. Dirk threaded his way
through them, wondering whom it was they reminded him of, and
eventually deciding that it was the small crowd of naked men
standing around behind the Holy Family in Michelangelo's
picture of the same name, for no more apparent reason than that
Michelangelo rather liked them.
He telephoned an acquaintance of his called Nobby Paxton,
or so he claimed, who worked the darker side of the domestic
appliance supply business. Dirk came straight to the point.
"Dobby, I deed a fridge."
"Dirk, I been saving one against the day you'd ask me."
Dirk found this highly unlikely.
"Only I wand a good fridge you thee, Dobby."
"This is the best, Dirk. Japanese. Microprocessor
controlled."
"What would a microprothethor be doing id a fridge,
Dobby?"
"Keeping itself cool, Dirk. I'll get the lads to bring it
round right away. I need to get it off the premises pretty
sharpish for reasons which I won't trouble you with."
"I apprethiade thid, Dobby," said Dirk. "Froblem id, I'm
not at home at preddent."
"Gaining access to houses in the absence of their owner is
only one of the panoply of skills with which my lads are
blessed. Let me know if you find anything missing afterwards,
by the way."
"I'd be happy to, Dobby. Id fact if your ladth are in a
mood for carting thtuff off I'd be glad if they would thtart
with my old fridge. It badly needth throwing away."
"I shall see that it's done, Dirk. There's usually a skip
or two on your street these days. Now, do you expect to be
paying for this or shall I just get you kneecapped straight
off, save everybody time and aggravation all round?"
It was never one hundred per cent clear to Dirk exactly
when Nobby was joking and he was not keen to put it to the
test. He assured him that he would pay him, as soon as next
they met.
"See you very soon then, Dirk," said Nobby. "By the way,
do you know you sound exactly as if someone's broken your
nose?"
There was a pause.
"You there, Dirk?" said Nobby.
"Yed," said Dirk. "I wad judd liddening to a reggord."
"Hot Potato!" roared the hi-fi in the cafи.
"Don't pick it up. pick it up, pick it up.
"Quick, pass it on, pass it on, pass it on."
"I said, do you know you sound exactly as if someone's
broken your nose?" repeated Nobby.
Dirk said that he did know this, thanked Nobby for
pointing it out, said goodbye, stood thoughtfully for a moment,
made another quick couple of phone calls, and then threaded his
way back through the huddle of posing waiters to find the girl
whose coffee he had appropriated sitting at his table.
"Hello," she said, meaningfully.
Dirk was as gracious as he knew how.
He bowed to her very politely, doffed his hat, since all
this gave him a second or so to recover himself, and requested
her permission to sit down.
"Go ahead," she said, "it's your table." She gestured
magnanimously.
She was small, her hair was neat and dark, she was in her
mid-twenties, and was looking quizzically at the half-empty cup
of coffee in the middle of the table.
Dirk sat down opposite her and leant forward
conspiratorially. "I expeg," he said in a low voice, "you are
enquirigg after your coffee."
"You betcha," said the girl.
"Id very bad for you, you dow."
"Is it?"
"Id id. Caffeide. Cholethderog in the milgg."
"I see, so it was just my health you were thinking of."
"I was thiggigg of meddy thiggs," said Dirk airily.
"You saw me sitting at the next table and you thought
`There's a nice-looking girl with her health in ruins. Let me
save her from herself.'"
"In a nudthell."
"Do you know you've broken your nose?"
"Yeth, of courth I do," said Dirk crossly. "Everybody
keepth - "
"How long ago did you break it?" the girl asked.
"Id wad broked for me," said Dirk, "aboud tweddy middidd
ago."
"I thought so," said the girl. "Close your eyes for a
moment."
Dirk looked at her suspiciously.
"Why?"
"It's all right," she said with a smile, "I'm not going to
hurt you. Now close them."
With a puzzled frown, Dirk closed his eyes just for a
moment. In that moment the girl reached over and gripped him
firmly by the nose, giving it a sharp twist. Dirk nearly
exploded with pain and howled so loudly that he almost
attracted the attention of a waiter.
"You widge!" he yelled, staggering wildly back from the
table clutching his face. "You double-dabbed widge!"
"Oh, be quiet and sit down," she said. "All right, I lied
about it not going to hurt you, but at least it should be
straight now, which will save you a lot worse later on. You
should get straight round to a hospital to have some splints
and padding put on. I'm a nurse, I know what I'm doing. Or at
least, I think I do. Let's have a look at you."
Panting and spluttering, Dirk sat down once more, his
hands cupped round his nose. After a few long seconds he began
to prod it tenderly again and then let the girl examine it.
She said, "My name's Sally Mills, by the way. I usually
try to introduce myself properly before physical intimacy takes
place, but sometimes," she sighed, "there just isn't time."
Dirk ran his fingers up either side of his nose again.
"I thigg id id trader," Dirk said at last.
"Straighter," Sally said. "Say `straighter' properly.
It'll help you feel better. "
"Straighter," said Dirk. "Yed. I thee wad you mead."
"What?"
"I see what you mead."
"Good," she said with a sigh of relief, "I'm glad that
worked. My horoscope this morning said that virtually
everything I decided today would be wrong."
"Yes, well you don't want to believe all that rubbish,"
said Dirk sharply.
"I don't," said Satly. Х
"Particularly not The Great Zaganza."
"Oh, you read it too, did you?"
"No. That is, well, not for the same reason."
"My reason was that a patient asked me to read his
horoscope to him this morning just before he died. What was
yours?"
"Er, a very complicated one."
"I see," said Sally, sceptically. "What's this?"
"It's a calculator," said Dirk. "Well, look, I mustn't
keep you. I am indebted to you, my dear lady, for the
tenderness of your ministrations and the loan of your coffee,
but lo! the day wears on, and I am sure you have a heavy
schedule of grievous bodily harm to attend to."
"Not at all. I came off night duty at nine o'clock this
morning, and all I have to do all day is keep awake so that I
can sleep normally tonight. I have nothing better to do than to
sit arnund talking to strangers in cafиs. You, on the other
hand, should get yourself to a casualty department as soon as
possible. As soon as you've paid my bill, in fact."
She leant over to the table she had originally been
sitting at and picked up the running-total lying by her plate.
She looked at it, shaking her head disapprovingly.
"Five cups of coffee, I'm afraid. It was a long night on
the wards. All sorts of comings and goings in the middle of it.
One patient in a coma who had to be moved to a private hospital
in the early hours. God knows why it had to be done at that
time of night. Just creates unnecessary trouble. I wouldn't pay
for the second croissant if I were you. I ordered it but it
never came."
She pushed the bill across to Dirk who picked it up with a
reluctant sigh.
"Inordinate," he said, "larcenously inordinate. And, in
the circumstances, adding a 15 per cent service charge is
tantamount to jeering at you. I bet they won't even bring me a
knife."
He turned and tried, without any real hope of success, to
summon any of the gaggle of waiters lounging among the sugar
bowls at the back.
Sally Mills took her bill and Dirk's and attempted to add
them up on Dirk's calculator.
"The total seems to come to `A Suffusion of YelIow'," she
said.
"Thank you, I'll take that," said Dirk turning bask
crossly and relieving her of the electronic I Ching set which
he put into his pocket. He resumed his hapless waving at the
tableau of waiters.
"What do you want a knife for, anyway?" asked Sally.
"To open this," said Dirk, waggling the large, heavily
Sellotaped envelope at her.
"I'll get you one," she said. A young man sitting on his
own at another nearby table was looking away at that moment, so
Sally quickly leaned across and nabbed his knife.
"I am indebted to you," said Dirk and put out his hand to
take the knife from her.
She held it away from him.
"What's in the envelope?" she said.
"You are an extremely inquisitive and presumptuous young
lady," exclaimed Dirk.
"And you," said Sally Mills, "are very strange."
"Only," said Dirk, "as strange as I need to be."
"Humph," said Sally. "What's in the envelope?" She still
wouldn't give him the knife.
"The envelope is not yours," proclaimed Dirk, "and its
contents are not your concern."
"It looks very interesting though. What's in it?"
"Well, I won't know till I've opened it!"
She looked at him suspiciously, then snatched the envelope
from him.
"I insist that you - " expostulated Dirk, incompletely.
"What's your name?" demanded Sally.
"My name is Gently. Mr Dirk Gently."
"And not Geoffrey Anstey, or any of these other names that
have been crossed out?" She frowned, briefly, looking at them.
"No," said Dirk. "Certainly not."
"So you mean the envelope is not yours either?"
"I - that is - "
"Aha! So you are also being extremely... what was it?"
"Inquisitive and presumptuous. I do not deny it. But I am
a private detective. I am paid to be inquisitive and
presumptuous. Not as often or copiously as I would wish, but I
am nevertheless inquisitive and presumptuous on a professional
basis."
"How sad. I think it's much more fun being inquisitive and
presumptuous as a hobby. So you are a professional while I am
merely an amateur of Olympic standard. You don't look like a
private detective."
"No private detective looks like a private detective.
That's one of the first rules of private detection."
"But if no private detective looks like a private
detective, how does a private detective know what it is he's
supposed not to look like? Seems to me there's a problem
there."
"Yes, but it's not one that keeps me awake at nights,"
said Dirk in exasperation. "Anyway, I am not as other private
detectives. My methods are holistic and, in a very proper sense
of the word, chaotic. I operate by investigating the
fundamental interconnectedness of all things."
Sally Mills merely blinked at him.
"Every particle in the universe," continued Dirk, warming
to his subject and beginning to stare a bit, "affects every
other particle, however faintly or obliquely. Everything
interconnects with everything. The beating of a butterfly's
wings in China can affect the course of an Atlantic hurricane.
If I could interrogate this table-leg in a way that made sense
to me, or to the table-leg, then it could provide me with the
answer to any question about the universe. I could ask anybody
I liked, chosen entirely by chance, any random question I cared
to think of, and their answer, or lack of it, would in some way
bear upon the problem to which I am seeking a solution. It is
only a question of knowing how to interpret it. Even you, whom
I have met entirely by chance, probably know things that are
vital to my investigation, if only I knew what to ask you,
which I don't, and if only I could be bothered to, which I
can't."
He paused, and said, "Please will you let me have the
envelope and the knife?"
"You make it sound as if someone's life depends on it."
Dirk dropped his eyes for a moment.
"I rather think somebody's life did depend on it," he
said. He said it in such a way that a cloud seemed to pass
briefly over them.
Sally Mills relented and passed the envelope and the knife
over to Dirk. A spark seemed to go out of her.
The knife was too blunt and the Sellotape too thickly
applied. Dirk struggled with it for a few seconds but was
unable to slice through it. He sat back in his seat feeling
tired and irritable.
He said, "I'll go and ask them if they've got anything
sharper," and stood up, clutching the envelope.
"You should go and get your nose fixed," said Sally Mills
quietly.
`"Thank you," said Dirk and bowed very slightly to her.
He picked up the bills and set out to visit the exhibition
of waiters mounted at the rear of the cafe. He encountered a
certain coolness when he was disinclined to augment the
mandatory 15 per cent service charge with any voluntary
additional token of his personal appreciation, and was told
that no, that was the only type of knife they had and that's
all there was to it.
Dirk thanked them and walked back through the cafи.
Sitting in his seat talking to Sally Mills was the young
man whose knife she had purloined. He nodded to her, but she
was deeply engrossed in conversation with her new friend and
did not notice.
"...in a coma," she was saying, "who had to be moved to a
private hospital in the early hours. God knows why it had to be
done at that time of night. Just creates unnecessary trouble.
Excuse me rabbiting on, but the patient had his own personal
Coca-Cola machine and sledge-hammer with him, and that sort of
thing is.all very well in a private hospital, but on a
shortstaffed NHS ward it just makes me tired, and I talk too
much when I'm tired. If I suddenly fall insensible to the
floor, would you let me know?"
Dirk walked on, and then noticed that Sally Mills had left
the book she had been reading on her original table, and
something about it caught his attention.
It was a large book, called Run Like the Devil. In
fact it was extremely large and a little dog-eared, looking
more like a puff pastry cliff than a book. The bottom half of
the cover featured the normal
woman-in-cocktail-dress-framed-in-the-sights-of-a-gun, while
the top half was entirely taken up with the author's name,
Howard Bell, embossed in silver.
Dirk couldn't immediately work out what it was about the
book that had caught his eye, but he knew that some detail of
the cover had struck a chord with him somewhere. He gave a
circumspect glance at the girl whose coffee he had purloined,
and whose five coffees and two croissants, one undelivered and
uneaten, he had subsequently paid for. She wasn't looking, so
he purloined her book as well and slipped it into the pocket of
his leather coat.
He stepped out on to the street, where a passing eagle
swooped out of the sky at him, nearly forcing him into the path
of a cyclist, who cursed and swore at him from a moral high
ground that cyclists alone seem able to inhabit.

Chapter 11

Into the well-kempt grounds that lay just on the owtskins
of a well-kempt village on the fringes of the well-kempt
Cotswolds turned a less than well-kempt car.
It was a battered yellow Citroкn 2CV which had had one
careful owner but also three suicidally reckless ones. It made
its way up the driveway with a reluctant air as if all it asked
for from life was to be tipped into a restful ditch in one of
the adjoining meadows and there allowed to settle in graceful
abandonment, instead of which here it was being asked to drag
itself all the way up this long gravelled drive which it would
no doubt soon be called upon to drag itself all the way back
down again, to what possible purpose it was beyond its wit to
imagine.
It drew to a halt in front of the elegant stone entrance
to the main building, and then began to trundle slowly
backwards again until its occupant yanked on the handbrake,
which evoked from the car a sort of strangled "eek".
A door flopped open, wobbling perilously on its one
remaining hinge, and there emerged from the car a pair of the
sort of legs which soundtrack editors are unable to see without
needing to slap a smoky saxophone solo all over, for reasons
which no one besides soundtrack editors has ever been able to
understand. In this particular case, however, the saxophone
would have been silenced by the proximity of the kazoo which
the same soundtrack editor would almost certainly have slapped
all over the progress of the vehicle.
The owner of the legs followed them in the usual manner,
closed the car door tenderly, and then made her way into the
building.
The car remained parked in front of it.
After a few minutes a porter came out and examined it,
adopted a disapproving manner and then, for lack of anything
more positive to do, went back in.
A short time later, Kate was shown into the office of Mr
Ralph Standish, the Chief Consultant Psychologist and one of
the directors of the Woodshead Hospital, who was just
completing a telephone conversation.
"Yes, it is true," he was saying, "that sometimes
unusually intelligent and sensitive children can appear to be
stupid. But, Mrs Benson, stupid children can sometimes appear
to be stupid as well. I think that's something you might have
to consider. I know it's very painful, yes. Good day, Mrs
Benson."
He put the phone away into a desk drawer and spent a
couple of seconds collecting his thoughts before looking up.
"This is very short notice, Miss, er, Schechter," he said
to her at last.
In fact what he had said was, This is ve short notice,
Miss, er-" and then he had paused and peered into another of
his desk drawers before saying "Schechter".
It seemed to Kate that it was very odd to keep your
visitors' names in a drawer, but then he clearly disliked
having things cluttering up his fine, but severely designed,
black ash desk because there was nothing on it at all. It was
completely blank, as was every other surface in his office.
There was nothing on the small neat steel and glass coffee
table which sat squarely between two Barcelona chairs. There
was nothing on top of the two expensive-looking filing cabinets
which stood at the back of the room.
There were no bookshelves - if there were any books they
were presumably hidden away behind the white doors of the large
blank built-in cupboards - and although there was one plain
black picture frame hanging on the wall, this was presumably a
temporary aberration because there was no picture in it.
Kate looked around her with a bemused air.
"Do you have no ornaments in here at all, Mr Standish?"
she asked.
He was, for a moment, somewhat taken aback by her
transatlantic directness, but then answered her.
"Indeed I have ornaments," he said; and pulled open
another drawer. He pulled out from this a small china model of
a kitten playing with a ball of wool and put it firmly on the
desk in front of him.
"As a psychologist I am aware of the important role that
ornamentation plays in nourishing the human spirit," he
pronounced.
He put the china kitten back in the drawer and slid it
closed with a smooth click.
"Now."
He clasped his hands together on the desk in front of him,
and looked at her enquiringly.
"It's very good of you to see me at short notice, Mr
Standish - "
"Yes, yes, we've established that."
"- but I'm sure you know what newspaper deadlines are
like."
"I know at least as much as I would ever care to know
about newspapers, Miss, er - "
He opened his drawer again.
"Miss Schechter, but - "
"Well that's partly what made me approach you," lied Kate
charmingly. "I know that you have suffered from some, well,
unfortunate publicity here, and thought you might welcome the
opportunity to talk about some of the more enlightening aspects
of the work at the Woodshead Hospital." She smiled very
sweetly.
"It's only because you come to me with the highest
recommendation from my very good friend and colleague Mr, er - "
"Franklin, Alan Franklin," prompted Kate, to save the
psychologist from having to open his drawer again. Alan
Franklin was a therapist whom Kate had seen for a few sessions
after the loss of her husband Luke. He had warned her that
Standish, though brilliant, was also peculiar, even by the high
standards set by his profession.
"Franklin," resumed Standish, "that I agreed to see you.
Let me warn you instantly that if I see any resumption of this
'Something nasty in the Woodshead' mendacity appearing in the
papers as a result of this interview I will, I will - "
"`- do such things -
`What they are yet I know not - but they shall be
` The terror of the Earth '," said Kate, brightly.
Standish narrowed his eyes.
"Lear, Act 2, Scene 4," he said. "And I think
you'll find it's `terrors' and not `terror'."
"Do you know, I think you're right?" replied Kate.
Thank you, Alan, she thought. She smiled at Standish, who
relaxed into pleased superiority. It was odd, Kate reflected,
that people who needed to bully you were the easiest to push
around.
"So you would like to know precisely what, Miss
Schechter?"
"Assume," said Kate, "that I know nothing."
Standish smiled, as if to signify that no assumption could
possibly give him greater pleasure.
"Very well," he said. "The Woodshead is a research
hospital. We specialise in the care and study of patients with
unusual or previously unknown conditions, largely in the
psychological or psychiatric fields. Funds are raised in
various ways. One of our chief methods is quite simply to take
in private patients at exorbitantly high fees, which they are
happy to pay, or at least happy to complain about. There is in
fact nothing to complain about because patients who come to us
privately are made fully aware of why our fees are so high. For
the money they are paying, they are, of course, perfectly
entitled to complain - the right to complain is one of the
privileges they are paying for. In some cases we come to a
special arrangement under which, in return for being made the
sole beneficiaries of a patient's estate, we will guarantee to
look after that patient for the rest of his or her life."
"So in effect you are in the business of giving
scholarships to people with particularly gifted diseases?"
"Exactly. A very good way of expressing it. We are in the
business of giving scholarships to people with particularly
gifted diseases. I must make a note of that. Miss Mayhew!"
He had opened a drawer, which clearly contained his office
intercom. In response to his summons one of the cupboards
opened, and tumed out to be a door into a side office - a
feature which must have appealed to some architect who had
conceived an ideological dislike of doors. From this office
there emerged obediently a thin and rather blank-faced woman in
her midforties.
"Miss Mayhew," said Mr Standish, "we are in the business
of giving scholarships to people with particularly gifted
diseases."
"Very good, Mr Standish," said Miss Mayhew, and retreated
backwards into her office, pulling the door closed after her.
Kate wondered if it was perhaps a cupboard after all.
"And we do have some patients with some really quite
outstanding diseases at the moment," enthused the psychologist.
"Perhaps you would care to come and see one or two of our
current stars?"
"Indeed I would. That would be most interesting, Mr
Standish, you're very kind," said Kate.
"You have to be kind in this job," Standish replied, and
flicked a smile on and off at her.
Kate was trying to keep some of the impatience she was
feeling out of her manner. She did not take to Mr Standish, and
was beginning to feel that there was a kind of Martian quality
to him. Furthermore, the only thing she was actually interested
in was discovering whether or not the hospital had accepted a
new admission in the early hours of the morning, and if so,
where he was and whether she could see him.
She had originally tried the direct approach but had been
rebuffed by a mere telephone receptionist on the grounds that
she didn't have a name to ask for. Simply asking if they had
any tall, well-built, blond men in residence had seemed to
create entirely the wrong impression. At least, she insisted to
herself that it was entirely the wrong impression. A quick
phone call to Alan Franklin had set her up for this altogether
more subtle approach.
"Good!" A look of doubt passed momentarily over Mr
Standish's face, and he summoned Miss Mayhew from out of her
cupboard again.
"Miss Mayhew, that last thing I just said to you - "
"Yes, Mr Standish?"
"I assume you realised that I wished you to make a note of
it for me?"
"No, Mr Standish, but I will be happy to do so."
"Thank you," said Mr Standish with a slightly tense look.
"And tidy up in here please. The place looks a - "
He wanted to say that the place looked a mess, but was
frustrated by its air of clinical sterility.
"Just tidy up generally," he concluded.
"Yes, Mr Standish."
The psychologist nodded tersely, brushed a non-existent
speck of dust off the top of his desk, flicked another brief
smile on and off at Kate and then escorted her out of his
office into the corridor which was immaculately laid with the
sort of beige carpet which gave everyone who walked on it
electric shocks.
"Here, you see," said Standish, indicating part of the
wall they were walking past with an idle wave of his hand, but
not making it in any way clear what it was he wished her to see
or what she was supposed to understand from it.
"And this," he said, apparently pointing at a door hinge.
"Ah," he added, as the door swung open towards them. Kate
was alarmed to find herself giving a little expectant start
every time a door opened anywhere in this place. This was not
the sort of behaviour she expected of a worldly-wise New Yorker
journalist, even if she didn't actually live in New York and
only wrote travel articles for magazines. It still was not
right for her to be looking for large blond men every time a
door opened.
There was no large blond man. There was instead a small,
sandy-haired girl of about ten years old, being pushed along in
a wheelchair. She seemed very pale, sick and withdrawn, and was
murmuring something soundlessly to herself. Whatever it was she
was murmuring seemed to cause her worry and agitation, and she
would flop this way then that in her chair as if trying to
escape from the words coming out of her mouth. Kate was
instantly moved by the sight of her, and on an impulse asked
the nurse who was pushing her along to stop.
She squatted down to look kindly into the girl's face,
which seemed to please the nurse a little, but Mr Standish less
so.
Kate did not try to demand the girl's attention, merely
gave her an open and friendly smile to see if she wanted to
respond, but the girl seemed unwilling or unable to. Her mouth
worked away endlessly, appearing almost to lead an existence
that was independent of the rest of her face.
Now that Kate looked at her more closely it seemed that
she looked not so much sick and withdrawn as weary, harassed
and unutterably fed up. She needed a little rest, she needed
peace, but her mouth kept motoring on.
For a fleeting instant her eyes caught Kate's, and the
message Kate received was along the lines of "I'm sorry but
you'll just have to excuse me while all this is going on". The
girl took a deep breath, half-closed her eyes in resignation
and continued her relentless silent murmuring.
Kate leant forward a little in an attempt to catch any
actual words, but she couldn't make anything out. She shot an
enquiring look up at Standish.
He said, simply, "Stock market prices."
A look of amazement crept over Kate's face.
Standish added with a wry shrug, "Yesterday's, I'm
afraid."
Kate flinched at having her reaction so wildly
misinterpreted, and hurriedly looked back at the girl in order
to cover her confusion.
"You mean," she said, rather redundantly, "she's just
sitting here reciting yesterday's stock market prices?" The
girl rolled her eyes past Kate's.
"Yes," said Standish. "It took a lip reader to work out
what was going on. We all got rather excited, of course, but
then closer examination revealed that they were only
yesterday's which was a bit of a disappointment. Not that
significant a case really. Aberrant behaviour. Interesting to
know why she does it, but - "
"Hold on a moment," said Kate, trying to sound very
interested rather than absolutely horrified, "are you saying
that she is reciting - what? - the closing prices over and
over, or - "
"No. That's an interesting feature of course. She pretty
much keeps pace with movements in the market over the course of
a whole day. Just twenty-four hours out of step."
"But that's extraordinary, isn't it?"
"Oh yes. Quite a feat."
"A feat?"
"Well, as a scientist, I have to take the view that since
the information is freely available, she is acquiring it
through normal channels. There's no necessity in this case to
invent any supernatural or paranonnal dimension. Occam's razor.
Shouldn't needlessly multiply entities."
"But has anyone seen her studying the newspapers, or
copying stuff down over the phone?"
She looked up at the nurse, who shook her head, dumbly.
"No, never actually caught her at it," said Standish. "As
I said, it's quite a feat. I'm sure a stage magician or memory
man could tell you how it was done."
"Have you asked one?"
"No. Don't hold with such people."
"But do you really think that she could possibly be doing
this deliberately?" insisted Kate.
"Believe me, if you understood as much about people as I
do, Miss, er - you would believe anything," said Standish, in
his most professionally reassuring tone of voice.
Kate stared into the tired, wretched face of the young
girl and said nothing.
"You have to understand," said Standish, "that we have to
be rational about this. If it was tomorrow's stock market
prices, it would be a different story. That would be a
phenomenon of an entirely different character which would merit
and demand the most rigorous study. And I'm sure we'd have no
difficulty in funding the research. There would be absolutely
no problem about that."
"I see," said Kate, and meant it.
She stood up, a little stiftly, and brushed down her
skirt.
"So," she said, and felt ashamed of herself, "who is your
newest patient? Who has arrived most recently, then?" She
shuddered at the crassness of the non sequitur, but
reminded herself that she was there as a journalist, so it
would not seem odd.
Standish waved the nurse and the wheelchair with its sad
charge on their way. Kate glanced back at the girl once, and
then followed Standish through the swing-doors and into the
next section of corridor, which was identical to the previous
one.
"Here, you see," said Standish again, this time apparently
in relation to a window frame.
"And this," he said, pointing at a light.
He had obviously either not heard her question or was
deliberately ignoring it. Perhaps, thought Kate, he was simply
treating it with the contempt it deserved.
It suddenly dawned on her what all this Here you
see
, and And thising was about. He was asking her to
admire the quality of the decor. The windows were sashes, with
finely made and beautifully painted beads; the light fittings
were of a heavy dull metal, probably nickel-plated - and so on.
"Very fine," she said accommodatingly, and then noticed
that this had sounded an odd thing to say in her American
accent.
"Nice place you've got here," she added, thinking that
that would please him.
It did. He allowed himself a subdued beam of pleasure.
"We like to think of it as a quality caring environment,"
he said.
"You must get a lot of people wanting to come here," Kate
continued, plugging away at her theme. "How often do you admit
new patients? When was the last -?"
With her left hand she carefully restrained her right hand
which wanted to strangle her at this moment.
A door they were passing was slightly ajar, and she tried,
unobtrusively, to look in.
"Very well, we'll take a look in here," said Standish
immediately, pushing the door fully open, on what transpired
to be quite a small room.
"Ah yes," Standish said, recognising the occupant. He
ushered Kate in.
The occupant of the room was another non-large, non-blond
person. Kate was beginning to find the whole visit to be
something of an emotionally wearing experience, and she had a
feeling that things were not about to ease up in that respect.
The man sitting in the bedside chair while his bed was
being made up by a hospital orderly was one of the most deeply
and disturbingly tousled people that Kate had ever seen. In
fact it was only his hair that was tousled, but it was tousled
to such an extreme degree that it seemed to draw all of his
long face up into its distressed chaos.
He seemed quite content to sit where he was, but there was
something tremendously vacant about his contentedness - he
seemed literally to be content about nothing. There was a
completely empty space hanging in the air about eighteen inches
in front of his face, and his contentedness, if it sprang from
anything, sprang from staring at that.
There was also a sense that he was waiting for something.
Whether it was something that was about to happen at any
moment, or something that was going to happen later in the
week, or even something that was going to happen some little
while after hell iced over and British Telecom got the phones
fixed was by no means apparent because it seemed to be all the
same to him. If it happened he was ready for it and if it
didn't - he was content.
Kate found such contentedness almost unbearably
distressing.
"What's the matter with him?" she said quietly, and then
instantly realised that she was talking as if he wasn't there
when he could probably speak perfectly well for himself.
Indeed, at that moment, he suddenly did speak.
"Oh, er, hi," he said. "OK, yeah, thank you."
"Er, hello," she said, in response, though it didn't seem
quite to fit. Or rather, what he had said didn't seem quite to
fit. Standish made a gesture to her to discourage her from
speaking.
"Er, yeah, a bagel would be fine," said the contented man.
He said it in a flat kind of tone, as if merely repeating
something he had been given to say.
"Yeah, and maybe some juice," he added. "OK, thanks." He
then relaxed into his state of empty watchfulness.
"A very unusual condition," said Standish, "that is to
say, we can only believe that it is entirely unique. I've
certainly never heard of anything remotely like it. It has also
proved virtually impossible to verify beyond question that it
is what it appears to be, so I'm glad to say that we have been
spared the embarrassment of attempting to give the condition a
name."
"Would you like me to help Mr Elwes back to bed?" asked
the orderly of Standish. Standish nodded. He didn't bother to
waste words on minions.
The orderly bent down to talk to the patient.
"Mr Elwes?" he said quietly.
Mr Elwes seemed to swim up out of a reverie.
"Mmmm?" he said, and suddenly looked around. He seemed
confused.
"Oh! Oh? What?" he said faintly.
"Would you like me to help you back to bed?"
"Oh. Oh, thank you, yes. Yes, that would be kind."
Though clearly dazed and bewildered, Mr Elwes was quite
able to get himself back into bed, and all the orderly needed
to supply was reassurance and encouragement. Once Mr Elwes was
well settled, the orderly nodded politely to Standish and Kate
and made his exit.
Mr Elwes quickly lapsed back into his trancelike state,
lying propped up against an escarpment of pillows. His head
dropped forward slightly and he stared at one of his knees,
poking up bonily from under the covers.
"Get me New York," he said.
Kate shot a puzzled glance at Standish, hoping for some
kind of explanation, but got none.
"Oh, OK," said Mr Elwes, "it's 541 something. Hold on." He
spoke another four digits of a number in his dead, flat voice.
"What is happening here?" asked Kate at last.
"It took us rather a long time to work it out. It was only
quite by the remotest chance that someone discovered it. That
television was on in the room... "
He pointed to the small portable set off to one side of
the bed.
". . .tuned to one of those chat programme things, which
happened to be going out live. Most extraordinary thing. Mr
Elwes was sitting here muttering about how much he hated the
BBC - don't know if it was the BBC, perhaps it was one of those
other channels they have now - and was expressing an opinion
about the host of the programme, to the effect that he
considered him to be a rectum of some kind, and saying
furthermore that he wished the whole thing was over and that,
yes, all right he was coming, and then suddenly what he was
saying and what was on the television began in some
extraordinary way almost to synchronise."
"I don't understand what you mean," said Kate.
"I'd be surprised if you did," said Standish. "Everything
that Elwes said was then said just a moment later on the
television by a gentleman by the name of Mr Dustin Hoffman. It
seems that Mr Elwes here knows everything that this Mr Hoffman
is going to say just a second or so before he says it. It is
not, I have to say, something that Mr Hoffman would be very
pleased about if he knew. Attempts have been made to alert the
gentleman to the problem, but he has proved to be somewhat
difficult to reach."
"Just what the shit is going on here?" asked Mr Elwes
placidly.
"Mr Hoffman is, we believe, currently making a film on
location somewhere on the west coast of America."
He looked at his watch.
"I think he has probably just woken up in his hotel and is
making his early morning phone calls," he added.
Kate was gazing with astonishment between Standish and the
extraordinary Mr Elwes.
"How long has the poor man been like this?"
"Oh, about five years I think. Started absolutely out of
the blue. He was sitting having dinner with his family one day
as usual when suddenly he started complaining about his
caravan. And then shortly afterwards about how he was being
shot. He then spent the entire night talking in his sleep,
repeating the same apparently meaningless phrases over and over
again and also saying that he didn't think much of the way they
were written. It was a very trying time for his family, as you
can imagine, living with such a perfectionist actor and not
even realising it. It now seems very surprising how long it
took them to identify what was occurring. Particularly when he
once woke them all up in the early hours of the morning to
thank them and the producer and the director for his Oscar."
Kate, who didn't realise that the day was still only
softening her up for what was to come, made the mistake of
thinking that it had just reached a climax of shock.
"The poor man," she said in a hushed voice. "What a
pathetic state to be in. He's just living as someone else's
shadow."
"I don't think he's in any pain."
Mr Elwes appeared to be quietly locked in a bitter
argument which seemed to touch on the definitions of the words
"points" "gross", "profits" and "limo".
"But the implications of this are extraordinary aren't
they?" said Kate. "He's actually saying these things moments
before Dustin Hoffman?"
"Well, it's all conjecture of course. We've only got a few
clear instances of absolute correlation and we just haven't got
the opportunity to do more thorough research. One has to
recognise that those few instances of direct correlation were
not rigorously documented and could more simply be explained as
coincidence. The rest could be merely the product of an
elaborate fantasy."
"But if you put this case next to that of the girl we just
saw... "
"Ah, well we can't do that you see. We have to judge each
case on its own merits."
"But they're both in the same world..."
"Yes, but there are separate issues. Obviously, if Mr
Elwes here could demonstrate significant precognition of, for
instance, the head of the Soviet Union or, better still, the
President of the United States, then clearly there would be
important defence issues involved and one might be prepared to
stretch a point on the question of what is and what is not
coincidence and fantasy, but for a mere screen actor - that is,
a screen actor with no apparent designs on political office - I
think that, no, we have to stick to the principles of rigorous
science.
"So," he added, turning to leave, and drawing Kate with
him, "I think that in the cases of both Mr Elwes and, er,
what-was-her-name, the charming girl in the wheelchair, it may
be that we are not able to be of much more help to them, and we
may need the space and facilities for more deserving cases."
Kate could think of nothing to say to this and followed,
seething dumbly.
"Ah, now here we have an altogether much more interesting
and promising case," said Standish, forging on ahead through
the next set of double doors.
Kate was trying to keep her reactions under control, but
nevertheless even someone as glassy and Martian as Mr Standish
could not help but detect that his audience was not absolutely
with him. A little extra brusqueness and impatience crept into
his demeanour, to join forces with the large quantities of
brusqueness and impatience which were already there.
They paced down the corridor for a few seconds in silence.
Kate was looking for other ways of casually introducing the
subject of recent admissions, but was forced to concede to
herself that you cannot attempt to introduce the same subject
three times in a row without beginning to lose that vital
quality of casualness. She glanced as surreptitiously as she
could at each door they passed, but most were firmly closed,
and the ones that were not revealed nothing of interest.
She glanced out of a window as they walked past it and
noticed a van turning into a roar courtyard. It caught her
attention in the brief instant that it was within her view
because it very clearly wasn't a baker's van or a laundry van.
Baker's vans and laundry vans advertise their business and have
words like "Bakery" and "Laundry" painted on them, whereas this
van was completely blank. It had absolutely nothing to say to
anyone nnd it said it loudly and distinctly.
It was a large, heavy, serious-looking van that was almost
on the verge of being an actual lorry, and it was painted in a
uniform dark metallic grey. It reminded Kate of the huge
gun-metal-grey freight lorries which thunder through Bulgaria and
Yugoslavia on their way from Albania with nothing but the word
"Albania" stencilled on their sides. She remembered wondering
what it was that the Albanians exported in such an anonymous
way, but when on one occasion she had looked it up, she found
that their only export was electricity - which, if she
remembered her high school physics correctly, was unlikely to
be moved around in lorries.
The large, serious-looking van turned and started to
reverse towards a rear entrance to the hospital. Whatever it
was that the van usually carried, Kate thought, it was about
either to pick it up or deliver it. She moved on.
A few moments later Standish arrived at a door, knocked at
it gently and looked enquiringly into the room within. He then
beckoned to Kate to follow him in.
This was a room of an altogether different sort.
Immediately within the door was an ante-room with a very large
window through which the main room could be seen. The two rooms
were clearly sound-proofed from each other, because the anteroom
was decked out with monitoring equipment and computers,
not one of which but didn't hum loudly to itself, and the main
room contained a woman lying in bed, asleep.
"Mrs Elspeth May," said Standish, and clearly felt that he
was introducing the top of the bill. Her room was obviously a
very good one - spacious and furnished comfortably and
expensively. Fresh flowers stood on every surface, and the
bedside table on which Mrs May's knitting lay was of mahogany.
She herself was a comfortably shaped, silver-haired lady
of late middle age, and she was lying asleep half propped up in
bed on a pile of pillows, wearing a pink woolly cardigan. Aher
a moment it became clear to Kate that though she was asleep she
was by no means inactive. Her head lay back peacefully with her
eyes closed, but her right hand was clutching a pen which was
scribbling away furiously on a large pad of paper which lay
beside her. The hand, like the wheelchair girl's mouth, seemed
to lead an independent and feverishly busy existence. Some
small pinkish electrodes were taped to Mrs May's forehead just
below her hairline, and Kate assumed that these were providing
some of the readings which danced across the computer screens
in the ante-room in which she and Standish stood. Two
whitecoated men and a woman sat monitoring the equipment, and a
nurse stood watching through the window. Standish exchanged a
couple of brief words with them on the current state of the
patient, which was universally agreed to be excellent.
Kate could not escape the impression that she ought to
know who Mrs May was, but she didn't and was forced to ask.
"She is a medium," said Standish a little crossly, "as I
assumed you would know. A medium of prodigious powers. She is
currently in a trance and engaged in automatic writing. She is
taking dictation. Virtually every piece of dictation she
receives is of inestimable value. You have not heard of her?"
Kate admitted that she had not.
"Well, you are no doubt familiar with the lady who claimed
that Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert were dictating music to
her?"
"Yes, I did hear about that. There was a lot of stuff in
colour supplements about her a few years ago."
"Her claims were, well, interesting, if that's the sort of
thing you're interested in. The music was certainly more
consistent with what might be produced by each of those
gentlemen quickly and before breakfast, than it was with what
you would expect from a musically unskilled middle-aged
housewife."
Kate could not let this pomposity pass.
"That's a rather sexist viewpoint," she said, "George
Eliot was a middle-aged housewife."
"Yes, yes," said Standish testily, "but she wasn't taking
musical dictation from the deceased Wolfgang Amadeus. That's
the point I'm making. Please try and follow the logic of this
argument and do not introduce irrelevancies. If I felt for a
moment that the example of George Eliot could shed any light on
our present problem, you could rely on me to introduce it
myself.
"Where was I?"
"I don't know."
"Mabel. Doris? Was that her name? Let us call her Mabel.
The point is that the easiest way of dealing with the Doris
problem was simply to ignore it. Nothing very important hinged
on it at alI. A few concerts. Second rate material. But here,
here we have something of an altogether diffenent nature."
He said this last in hushed tones and turned to study a TV
monitor which stood among the bank of computer screens. It
showed a close-up of Mrs May's hand scuttling across her pad of
paper. Her hand largely obscured what she had written, but it
appeared to be mathematics of some kind.
"Mrs May is, or so she claims, taking dictation from some
of the greatest physicists. From Einstein and from Heisenberg
and Planck. And it is very hard to dispute her claims, because
the information being produced here, by automatic writing, by
this...untutored lady, is in fact physics of a very profound
order.
"From the late Einstein we are getting more and more
refinements to our picture of how time and space work at a
macroscopic level, and from the late Heisenberg and Planck we
are increasing our understanding of the fundamental structures
of matter at a quantum level. And there is absolutely no doubt
that this information is edging us closer and closer towards
the elusive goal of a Grand Unified Field Theory of Everything.
"Now this produces a very interesting, not to say somewhat
embarrassing situation for scientists because the means by
which the information is reaching us seems to be completely
contrary to the meaning of the information."
"It's like Uncle Henry," said Kate, suddenly.
Standish looked at her blankly.
"Uncle Henry thinks he's a chicken," Kate explained.
Standish looked at her blankly again.
"You must have heard it," said Kate. "`We're terribly
worried about Uncle Henry. He thinks he's a chicken.' `Well,
why don't you send him to the doctor?' `Well, we would only we
need the eggs.'".
Standish stared at her as if a small but perfectly formed
elderberry tree had suddenly sprung unbidden from the bridge of
her nose.
"Say that again," he said in a small, shocked voice.
"What, all of it?"
"All of it."
Kate stuck her fist on her hip and said it again, doing
the voices with a bit more dash and Southern accents this time.
"'That's brilliant," Standish breathed when she had done.
"You must have heard it before," she said, a little
surprised by this response. "It's an old joke."
"No," he said, "I have not. We need the eggs. We need the
eggs. We need the eggs. `We can't send him
to the doctor because we need the eggs.' An astounding
insight into the central paradoxes of the human condition and
of our indefatigable facility for constructing adaptive
rationales to account for it. Good God."
Kate shrugged.
"And you say this is a joke?" demanded Standish
incredulously.
"Yes. It's very old, really."
"And are they all like that? I never realised."
"Well - "
"I'm astounded," said Standish, "utterly astounded. I
thought that jokes were things that fat people said on
television and I never listened to them. I feel that people
have been keeping something from me. Nurse!"
The nurse who had been keeping watch on Mts May through
the window jumped at being barked at unexpectedly like this.
"Er, yes, Mr Standish?" she said. He clearly made her
nervous.
"Why have you never told me any jokes?"
The nurse stared at him, and quivered at the impossibility
of even knowing how to think about answering such a question.
"Er, well... "
"Make a note of it will you? In future I will require you
and all the other staff in this hospital to tell me all the
jokes you have at your disposal, is that understood?"
"Er, yes, Mr Standish - "
Standish looked at her with doubt and suspicion.
"You do know some jokes do you, nurse?" he challenged her.
"Er, yes, Mr Standish, I think, yes I do."
"Tell me one."
"What, er, now, Mr Standish?"
"This instant."
"Er, well, um - there's one which is that a patient wakes
up after having, well, that is, he's been to, er, to surgery,
and he wakes up and, it's not very good, but anyway, he's been
to surgery and he says to the doctor when he wakes up, 'Doctor,
doctor, what's wrong with me, I can't feel my legs.' And the
doctor says, `Yes, I'm afraid we've had to amputate both your
arms.' And that's it really. Er, that's why he couldn't feel
his legs, you see."
Mr Standish looked at her levelly for a moment or two.
"You're on report, nurse," he said.
"Yes, Mr Standish."
He turned to Kate.
"Isn't there one about a chicken crossing a road or some
such thing?"
"Er, yes," said Kate, doubtfully. She felt she was caught
in a bit of a situation here.
"And how does that go?"
"Well," said Kate, "it goes `Why did the chicken cross the
road?'"
"Yes? And?"
"And the answer is `To get to the other side'."
"I see." Standish considered things for a moment. "And
what does this chicken do when it arrives at the other side of
the road?."
"History does not relate," replied Kate promptly. "I think
that falls outside the scope of the joke, which really only
concerns itself with the journey of the chicken across the road
and the chicken's reasons for making it. It's a little like a
Japanese haiku in that respect."
Kate suddenly found she was enjoying herself. She managed
a surreptitious wink at the nurse, who had no idea what to make
of anything at all.
"I see," said Standish once again, and frowned. "And do
these, er, jokes require the preparatory use of any form of
artificial stimulant?"
"Depends on the joke, depends on who it's being told to."
"Hmm, well I must say, you've certainly opened up a rich
furrow for me, Miss, er. It seems to me that the whole field of
humour could benefit from close and immediate scrutiny. Clearly
we need to sort out the jokes which have any kind of genuine
psychological value from those which merely encourage drug
abuse and should be stopped. Good."
He turned to address the white-coated nesearcher who was
studying the TV monitor on which Mrs May's scribblings were
being tracked.
"Anything fresh of value from Mr Einstein?" he asked.
The researrher did not move his eyes from the screen. He
replied, "It says `How would you like your eggs? Poached or
boiled?'"
Again, Standish paused.
"Interesting," he said, "very interesting. Continue to
make at careful note of everything she writes. Come." This last
he said to Kate, and made his way out of the room.
"Very strange people, physicists," he said as soon as they
were outside again. "In my experience the ones who aren't
actually dead are in some way very ill. Well, the afternoon
presses on and I'm sure that you are keen to get away and write
your article, Miss, er. I certainly have things urgently
awaiting my attention and patients awaiting my care. So, if you
have no more questions - "
"There is just one thing, Mr Standish." Kate decided, to
hell with it. "We need to emphasise that it's up to the minute.
Perhaps if you could spare a couple more minutes we could go
and see whoever is your most recent admission."
"I think that would be a little tricky. Our last admission
was about a month ago and she died of pneumonia two weeks after
admission."
"Oh, ah. Well, perhaps that isn't so thrilling. So. No new
admissions in the last couple of days. No admissions of anyone
particularly large or blond or Nordic, with a fur coat or a
sledgehammer perhaps. I mean, just for instance." An
inspiration struck her. "A re-admission perhaps?"
Standish regarded her with deepening suspicion.
"Miss, er - "
"Schechter."
"Miss Schechter, I begin to get the impression that your
interests in the hospital are not - "
He was interrupted at that moment by the swing-doors just
behind them in the corridor being pushed open. He looked up to
see who it was, and as he did so his manner changed.
He motioned Kate sharply to stand aside while a large
trolley bed was wheeled through the doors by an orderly. A
sister and another nurse followed in attendance, and gave the
impression that they were the entourage in a procession rather
than merely nurses about their normal business.
The occupant of the trolley was a delicately frail old man
with skin like finely veined parchment.
The rear section of the trolley was inclined upwards at a
very slight angle so that the old man could survey the world as
it passed him, and he surveyed it with a kind of quiet,
benevolent horror. His mouth hung gently open and his head
lolled very slightly, so that every slightest bump in the
progress of the trolley caused it to roll a little to one side
or the other. Yet in spite of his fragile listlessness, the air
he emanated was that of very quietly, very gently, owning
everything.
It was the one eye which conveyed this. Each thing it
rested on, whether it was the view through a window, or the
nurse who was holding back the door so that the trolley could
move through it without impediment, or whether it was on Mr
Standish, who suddenly was all obsequious charm and obeisance,
all seemed instantly gathered up into the domain ruled by that
eye.
Kate wondered for a moment how it was that eyes conveyed
such an immense amount of information about their owners. They
were, after all, merely spheres of white gristle. They hardly
changed as they got older, apart from getting a bit redder and
a bit runnier. The iris opened and closed a bit, but that was
all. Where did all this flood of information come from?
Particularly in the case of a man with only one of them and
only a sealed up flap of skin in place of the other.
She was interrupted in this line of thought by the fact
that at that instant the eye in question moved on from Standish
and settled on her. The grip it exerted was so startling that
she almost yelped.
With the frailest of faint motions the old man signalled
to the orderly who was pushing the trolley to pause. The
trolley drew to a halt and when the noise of its rolling wheels
was stilled there was, for a moment, no other noise to be heard
other than the distant hum of an elevator.
Then the elevator stopped.
Kate returned his look with a little smiling frown as if
to say, "Sorry, do I know you?" and then wondered to herself if
in fact she did. There was some fleeting familiarity about his
face, but she couldn't quite catch it. She was impressed to
notice that though this was only a trolley bed he was in, the
bed linen that his hands lay on was real linen, freshly
laundered and ironed.
Mr Standish coughed slightly and said, "Miss, er, this is
one of our most valued and, er, cherished patients, Mr-"
"Are you quite comfortable, Mr Odwin?" interrupted the
Sister helpfully. But there was no need. This was one patient
whose name Standish most certainly knew.
Odin quieted her with the slightest of gestures.
"Mr Odwin," said Standish, "this is Miss, er - "
Kate was about to introduce herself once more when she was
suddenly taken completely by surprise.
"I know exactly who she is," said Odin in a quiet but
distinct voice, and there was in his eye for a moment the sense
of an aerosol looking meaningfully at a wasp.
She tried to be very formal and English.
"I'm afraid," she said stiffly, "that you have the
advantage of me."
"Yes," said Odin.
He gestured to the orderly, and together they resumed
their leisurely passage down the corridor. Glances were
exchanged between Standish and the Sister, and then Kate was
startled to notice that there was someone else standing in the
corridor there with them.
He had not, presumably, appeared there by magic. He had
merely stood still when the trolley moved on, and his height,
or rather his lack of it, was such that he had simply hitherto
been hidden behind it.
Things had been much better when he had been hidden.
There are some people you like immediately, some whom you
think you might learn to like in the fullness of time, and some
that you simply want to push away from you with a sharp stick.
It was instantly apparent into which category, for Kate, the
person of Toe Rag fell. He grinned and stared at her, or
rather, appeared to stare at some invisible fly darting round
her head.
He ran up, and before she could prevent him, grabbed hold
of her right hand in his and shook it wildly up and down.
"I, too, have the advantage of you, Miss Schechter," he
said, and gleefully skipped away up the corridor.

Chapter 12

The large, serious-looking grey van moved smoothly down
the driveway, emerged through the stone gates and dipped
sedately as it turned off the gravel and on to the asphalt of
the public road. The road was a windy country lane lined with
the wintry silhouettes of leafless oaks and dead elms. Grey
clouds were piled high as pillows in the sky. The van made its
stately progress away down the lane and soon was lost among its
further twists and turns.
A few minutes later the yellow Citroкn made its less
stately appearance between the gates. It turned its splayed
wheels up on to the camber of the lane and set off at a slow
but difficult rate in the same direction.
Kate was rattled.
The last few minutes had been rather unpleasant. Standish
was clearly an oddly behaved man at the best of times, but
after their encounter with the patient named Odwin, he had
turned unequivocally hostile. It was the frightening hosulity
of one who was himself frightened - of what, Kate did not know.
Who was she? he had demanded to know. How had she wheedled
a refenence out of Alan Franklin, a respected man in the
profession? What was she after? What - and this seemed to be
the big one - had she done to arouse the disapprobation of Mr
Odwin?
She held the car grimly to the road as it negotiated the
bends with considerable difficulty and the straight sections
with only slightly less. The car had landed her in court on one
occasion when one of its front wheels had sailed off on a
little expedition of its own and nearly caused an accident. The
police witness in court had referred to her beloved Citroкn as
"the alleged car" and the name had subsequently stuck. She was
particularly fond of the alleged car for many reasons. If one
of its doors, for instance, fell off she could put it back on
herself, which is more than you could say for a BMW.
She wondered if she looked as pale and wan as she felt,
but the rear-view mirror was rattling around under the seat so
she was spared the knowledge.
Standish himself had become quite white and shaky at the
very idea of anybody crossing Mr Odwin and had dismissed out of
hand Kate's attempts to deny that she knew anything of him at
all. If that were the case, he had demanded of her, why then
had Mr Odwin made it perfectly clear that he knew her? Was she
accusing Mr Odwin of being a liar? If she was then she should
have a care for herself.
Kate did not know. The encounter with Mr Odwin was
completely inexplicable to her. But she could not deny to
herself that the man packed some kind of punch. When he looked
at you you stayed looked at. But beneath the disturbing quality
of his steady gaze had lain some even more disturbing
undercurrents. They were more disturbing because they were
undercurrents of weakness and fear.
And as for the other creature. . .
Clearly he was the cause of the stories that had arisen
recently in the more extremely abhorrent sectors of the tabloid
press about there being "Something Nasty in the Woodshead". The
stories had, of course, been offensive and callously
insensitive and had largely been ignored by everybody in the
country except for those very few millions who were keen on
offensive and callously insensitive things.
The stories had claimed that people in the nrea had been
"terrorised" by some repulsively deformed "goblin-like"
creature who regularly broke out of the Woodshead and committed
an impressively wide range of unspeakable acts.
Like most people, Kate had assumed, insofar as she had
thought about it at all, that what had actually happened was
that some poor bewildered mental patient had wandered out of
the grounds and given a couple of passing old ladies a bit of a
turn, and that the slavering hacks of Wapping had done the
rest. Now she was a little more shaky and a little less sure.
He - it - had known her name.
What could she make of that?
What she made of it was a wrong turning. In her
preoccupation she missed the turning that would take her on to
the main road back to London, and then had to work out what to
do about it. She could simply do a three-point turn and go
back, but it was a long time since she had last put the car
into reverse gear, and she was frankly a bit nervous about how
it would take to it.
She tried taking the next two right turns to see if that
would set her straight, but she had no great hopes of this
actually working, and was right not to have. She drove on for
two or three miles, knowing that she was on the wrong rmad but
at least, judging from the position of the lighter grey smear
in the grey clouds, going in the right direction.
After a while she settled down to this new route. A couple
of signposts she passed made it clear to her that she was
merely taking the B route back to London now, which she was
perfectly happy to do. If she had thought about it in advance,
she would probably have chosen to do so anyway in preference to
the busy trunk road.
The trip had been a total failure, and she would have done
far better simply to have stayed soaking in the bath all
afternoon. The whole experience had been thoroughly disturbing,
verging on the frightening, and she had drawn a complete blank
as far as her actual objective was concemed. It was bad enough
having an objective that she could hardly bring herself to
admit to, without having it completely fall apart on her as
well. A sense of stale futility gradually closed in on her
along with the general greyness of the sky.
She wondered if she was going very slightly mad. Her life
seemed to have drifted completely out of her control in the
last few days, and it was distressing to realise just how
fragile her grip was when it could so easily be shattered by a
relatively minor thunderbolt or meteorite or whatever it was.
The word "thunderbolt" seemed to have arrived in the
middle of that thought without warning and she didn't know what
to make of it, so she just let it lie there at the bottom of
her mind, like the towel lying on her bathroom floor that she
hadn't been bothered to pick up.
She longed for some sun to break through. The miles ground
along under her wheels, the clouds ground her down, and she
found herself increasingly thinking of penguins. At last she
felt she could stand it no more and decided that a few minutes'
walk was what she needed to shake her out of her mood.
She stopped the car at the side of the road, and the
elderly Jaguar which had been following her for the last
seventeen miles ran straight into the back of her, which worked
just as well.

Chapter 13

With a delicious shock of rage Kate leapt, invigorated,
out of her car and ran to harangue the driver of the other car
who was, in turn, leaping out of his in order to harangue her.
"Why don't you look where you're going?" she yelled at
him. He was a rather overweight man who had been driving
wearing a long leather coat and a rather ugly red hat, despite
the discomfort this obviously involved. Kate warmed to him
for it.
"Why don't I look where I'rn going?" he replied heatedly.
"Don't you look in your near-view mirror?"
"No," said Kate, putting her fists on her hips.
"Oh," said her adversary. "Why not?"
"Because it's under the seat."
"I see," he replied grimly. "Thank you for being so frank
with me. Do you have a lawyer?"
"Yes I do, as a matter of fact," said Kate. She said it
with vim and hauteur.
"Is he any good?" said the man in the hat. "I'm going to
need one. Mine's popped into prison for a while."
"Well, you certainly can't have mine."
"Why not?"
"Don't be absurd. It would be a clear conflict of
interest."
Her adversary folded his arms and leant back against the
bonnet of his car. He took his time to survey the
surroundings. The lane was growing dim as the early winter
evening began to settle on the land. He then leant into his car
to turn on his hazard warning indicators. The rear amber lights
winked prettily on the scrubby grass of the roadside. The front
lights were buried in the rear of Kate's Citroкn and were in no
fit state to wink.
He resumed his leaning posture and looked Kate up and down
appraisingly.
"You are a driver," he said, "and I use the word in the
loosest possible sense, i.e. meaning merely somebody who
occupies the driving seat of what I will for the moment call -
but I use the term strictly without prejudice - a car while it
is proceeding along the road, of stupendous, I would even say
verging on the superhuman, lack of skill. Do you catch my
drift?"
"No."
"I mean you do not drive well. Do you know you've been all
over the road for the last seventeen miles?"
"Seventeen miles!" exclaimed Kate. "Have you been
following me?"
"Only up to a point," said Dirk. "I've tried to stay on
this side of the road."
"I see. Well, thank you in turn for being so frank with
me. This, I need hardly tell you, is an outrage. You'd better
get yourself a damn good lawyer, because mine's going to
stick red-hot skewers in him."
"Perhaps I should get myself a kebab instead."
"You look as if you've had quite enough kebabs. May I ask
you why you were following me?"
"You looked as if you knew where you were going. To begin
with at least. For the first hundred yards or so.".
"What the hell's it got to do with you where I was going?"
"Navigational technique of mine."
Kate narrowed her eyes.
She was about to demand a full and instant explanation of
this preposterous remark when a passing white Ford Sierra
slowed down beside them.
The driver wound down the window and leant out. "Had a
crash then?" he shouted at them.
"Yes."
"Ha!" he said and drove on.
A second or two later a Peugeot stopped by them.
"Who was that just now?" the driver asked them, in
reference to the previous driver who had just stopped.
"I don't know," said Dirk.
"Oh," said the driver. "You look as if you've bad a crash
of some sort."
"Yes," said Dirk.
"Thought so," said the driver and drove on.
"You don't get the same quality of passers-by these days,
do you?" said Dirk to Kate.
"You get hit by some real dogs, too," said Kate. "I still
want to know why you were following me. You realise that it's
hard for me not to see you in the role of an extremely sinister
sort of a person."
"That's easily explained," said Dirk. "Usually I am. On
this occasion, however, I simply got lost. I was forced to take
evasive action by a large grey oncoming van which took a
proprietorial view of the road. I only avoided it by nipping down
a side lane in which I was then unable to reverse. A few
turnings later nnd I was thoroughly lost. There is a school of
thought which says that you should consult a map on these
occasions, but to such people I merely say, `Ha! What if you
have no map to consult? What if you have a map but it's of the
Dordogne?' My own strategy is to find a car, or the nearest
equivalent, which looks as if it knows where it's going and
follow it. I rarely end up where I was intending to go, but
often I end up somewhere that I needed to be. So what do you
say to that?"
"Piffle."
"A robust response. I salute you."
"l was going to say that I do the same thing myself
sometimes, but I've decided not to admit that yet."
"Very wise," said Dirk. "You don't want to give away too
much at this point. Play it enigmatic is my advice."
"I don't want your advice. Where were you trying to get
before suddenly deciding that driving seventeen miles in the
opposite direction would help you get there?"
"A place called the Woodshead."
"Ah, the mental hospital."
"You know it?"
"I've been driving away from it for the last seventeen
miles and I wish it was further. Which ward will you be in? I
need to know where to send the repair bill."
"They don't have wards," said Dirk. "And I think they
would be distressed to hear you call it a mental hospital."
"Anything that distresses 'em is fine by me."
Dirk looked about him.
"A fine evening," he said.
"No it isn't."
"I see," said Dirk. "You have, if I may say so, the air of
one to whom her day has not been a source of joy or spiritual
enrichment."
"Too damn right, it hasn't," said Kate. "I've had the sort
of day that would make St Francis of Assisi kick babies.
Particularly if you include Tuesday in with today, which is the
last time I was actually conscious. And now look. My beautiful
car. The only thing I can say in favour of the whole shebang is
that at least I'm not in Oslo."
"I can see how that might cheer you."
"I didn't say it cheered me. It just about stops me
killing myself. I might as well save myself the bother
anyway, with people like you so keen to do it for me."
"You were my able assistant, Miss Schechter." "Stop
doing that!"

"Stop doing what?"
"My name! Suddenly every stranger I meet knows my name.
Would you guys please just quit knowing my name for one second?
How can a girl be enigmatic under these conditions? The only
person I met who didn't seem to know my name was the only one I
actually introduced myself to. All right," she said, pointing
an accusing finger at Dirk, "you're not supernatural, so just
tell me how you knew my name. I'm not letting go of your tie
till you tell me."
"You haven't got hold of - "
"I have now, buster."
"Unhand me!"
"Why were you following me?" insisted Kate. "How do you
know my name?"
"I was following you for exactly the reasons stated. As
for your name, my dear lady, you practically told me yourself."
"I did not."
"I assure you, you did."
"I'm still holding your tie."
"If you are meant to be in Oslo but have been unconscious
since Tuesday, then presumably you were at the incredible
exploding check-in counter at Heathrow Terminal Two. It was
widely reported in the press. I expect you missed it through
being unconscious. I myself missed it through rampant apathy,
but the events of today have rather forced it on my attention."
Kate grudgingly let go of his tie, but continued to eye
him with suspicion.
"Oh yeah?" she said. "What events?"
"Disturbing ones," said Dirk, brushing himself down. "Even
if what you had told me yourself had not been eoough to
identify you, then the fact of your having also been today to
visit the Woodshead clinched it for me. I gather from your mood
of belligerent despondency that the man you were seeking was
not thene."
"What?"
"Please, have it," said Dirk, rapidly pulling off his tie
and handing it to her. "By chance I ran into a nurse from your
hospital earlier today. My first encounter with her was one
which, for various reasons, I was anxious to terminate
abruptly. It was only while I was standing on the pavement a
minute or two later, fending off the local wildlife, that one
of the words I had heard her say struck me, I may say, somewhat
like a thunderbolt. The idea was fantastically, wildly
improbable. But like most fantastically, wildly improbable
ideas it was at least as worthy of consideration as a more
mundane one to which the facts had been strenuously bent to
fit.
"I returned to question her further, and she confirmed
that a somewhat unusual patient had, in the early hours of the
morning, been transferred from the hospital, apparently to the
Woodshead.
"She also confided to me that another patient had been
almost indecently curious to find out what had become of him.
That patient was a Miss Kate Schechter, and I think you will
agree, Miss Schechter, that my methods of navigation have their
advantages. I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I
think I have ended up where I needed to be."

Chapter 14

After about half an hour a hefty man from the local garage
arrived with a pick-up truck, a tow-rope and a son. Having
looked at the situation he sent his son and the pick-up truck
away to deal with another job, attached the tow-rope to Kate's
now defunct car and pulled it away to the garage himself.
Kate was a little quiet about this for a minute or two,
and then said, "He wouldn't have done that if I hadn't been an
American."
He had recommended to them a small local pub where he
would come and look for them when he had made his diagnosis on
the Citroкn. Since Dirk's Jaguar had only lost its front right
indicator light, and Dirk insisted that he hardly ever turned
right anyway, they drove the short distance there. As Kate,
with some reluctance, climbed into Dirk's car she found the
Howard Bell book which Dirk had purloined from Sally Mills in
the cafи, and pounced on it. A few minutes later, walking into
the pub, she was still trying to work out if it was one she had
nead or not.
The pub combined all the traditional English quatities of
horse brasses, Formica and surliness. The sound of Michael
Jackson in the other bar mingled with the mournful
intermittence of the glass-cleaning machine in this one to
create an aural ambience which perfectly matched the elderly
paintwork in its dinginess.
Dirk bought himself and Kate a drink each, and then joined
her at the small comer table she had found away from the fat,
T-shirted hostility of the bar.
"I have read it," she announced, having thumbed her way by
now through most of Run Like the Devil. "At least, I
started it and read the first couple of chapters. A couple of
months ago, in fact. I don't know why I still read his books.
It's pcrfectly clear that his editor doesn't." She looked up at
Dirk. "I wouldn't have thought it was your sort of thing. From
what little I know of you."
"It isn't," said Dirk. "I, er, picked it up by mistake."
"'That's what everyone says," replied Kate. "He used to be
quite good," she added "if you liked that sort of thin. My
brother's in publishing in New York, and he says Howard Bell's
gone very strange nowadays. I get the feeling that they're all
a little afraid of him and he quite likes that. Certainly no
one seems to have the guts to tell him he should cut chapters
ten to twenty-seven inclusive. And all the stuff about the
goat. The theory is that the reason he sells so many millions
of copies is that nobody ever does read them. If everyone who
bought them actually read them they'd never bother to buy the
next one and his career would be over."
She pushed it away from her.
"Anyway," she said, "you've very cleverly told me why I
went to the Woodshead; you haven't told me why you were going
there yourself."
Dirk shrugged. "To see what it was like," he said,
non-commitally.
"Oh yes? Well, I'll save you the bother. The place is
quite horrible."
"Describe it. In fact start with the airport."
Kate took a hefty swig at her Bloody Mary and brooded
silently for a moment while the vodka marched around inside
her.
"You want to hear about the airport as well?" she said at
last.
"Yes."
Kate drained the rest of her drink.
"I'll need another one, then," she said and pushed the
empty glass across at him.
Dirk braved the bug-eyedness of the batman and returned a
minute or two later with a refill for Kate.
"OK," said Kate. "I'll start with the cat."
"What cat?"
"The cat I needed to ask the next-door neighbour to look
after for me."
"Which next-door neighbour?"
"The one that died."
"I see," said Dirk. "Tell you what, why don't I just shut
up and let you tell me?"
"Yes," said Kate, "that would be good."
Kate recounted the events of the last few days, or at
least, those she was conscious for, and then moved on to her
impressions of the Woodshead.
Despite the distaste with which she described it, it
sounded to Dirt like exactly the sort of place he would love to
retire to, if possible tomorrow. It combined a dedication to
the inexplicable, which was his own persistent vice (he could
only think of it as such, and sometimes would rail against it
with the fury of an addict), with a pampered self-indulgence
which was a vice to which he would love to be able to aspire if
he could ever but afford it.
At last Kate related her disturbing encounter with Mr
Odwin and his repellent minion, and it was as a result of this
that Dirk remained sunk in a frowning silence for a minute
afterwards. A large part of this minute was in fact taken up
with an internal struggle about whether or not he was going to
cave in and have a cigarette. He had recendy foresworn them and
the struggle was a regular one and he lost it regularly, often
without noticing.
He decided, with triumph, that he would not have one, and
then took one out anyway. Fishing out his lighter from the
capacious pocket of his coat involved first taking out the
envelope he had removed from Geoffrey Aristey's bathroom. He
put it on the table next to the book and lit his cigarette.
"The check-in girl at the airport..." he said at last.
"She drove me mad," said Kate, instantly. "She just went
through the motions of doing her job like some kind of blank
machine. Wouldn't listen, wouldn't think. I don't know where
they find people like that."
"She used to be my secretary, in fact," said Dirk. "They
don't seem to know where to find her now, either."
"Oh. I'm sorry," said Kate immediately, and then reflected
for a moment.
"I expect you're going to say that she wasn't like that
really " she continued. "Well, that's possible. I expect she
was just shielding herself from the frustrations of her job. It
must drive you insensible working at an airport. I think I
would have sympathised if I hadn't been so goddamn frustated
myself. I'm sorry, I didn't know. So that's what you're trying
to find out about."
Dirk gave a non-committal type of nod. "Amongst other
things," he said. Then he added, "I'm a private detective."
"Oh?" said Kate in surprise, and then looked puzzled.
"Does that bother you?"
"It's just that I have a friend who plays the double
bass."
"I see," said Dirk.
"Whenever people meet him and he's struggling arnund with
it, they all say the same thing, and it drives him crazy. They
all say, `I bet you wished you played the piccolo.' Nobody ever
works out that that's what everybody else says. I was just
trying to work out if there was something that everybody would
always say to a private detective, so that I could avoid saying
it."
"No. What happens is that everybody looks very shifty for
a moment, and you got that very well."
"I see." Kate looked disappointed. "Well, do you have any
clues - that is to say, any idea about what's happened to your
secretary?"
"No," said Dirk, "no idea. Just a vague image that I don't
know what to make of." He toyed thoughtfully with his
cigarette, and then let his gaze wander over the table again
and on to the book.
He picked it up and looked it over, wondering what impulse
had made him pick it up in the first place.
"I don't really know anything about Howard Bell," he said.
Kate was surprised at the way he suddenly changed the
subject, but also a little relieved.
"I only know," said Dirk, "that he sells a lot of books
and that they all look pretty much like this. What should I
know?"
"Well, there are some very strange stories about him."
"Like what?"
"Like what he gets up to in hotel suites all across
America. No one knows the details, of course, they just get the
bills and pay them because they don't like to ask. They feel
they're on safer ground if they don't know. Particularly about
the chickens."
"Chickens?" said Dirk. "What chickens?"
"Well apparently," said Kate, lowering her voice and
leaning forward a little, "he's always having live chickens
delivered to his hotel room."
Dirk frowned.
"What on earth for?" he said.
"Nobody knows. Nobody ever knows what happens to them.
Nobody ever sees them again. Not," she said, leaning even
further forward, and dropping her voice still further, "a
single feather."
Dirk wondered if he was being hopelessly innocent and
naоve.
"So what do people think he's doing with them?" he asked.
"Nobody," Kate said, "has the faintest idea. They don't
even want to have the faintest idea. They just don't
know."
She shrugged and picked the book up again herself.
"The other thing David - that's my brother - says about
him is that he has the absolute perfect bestseller's name."
"Really?" said Dirk. "In what way?"
"David says it's the first thing any publisher looks for
in a new author. Not, `Is his stuff any good?' or, `Is his
stuff any good once you get rid of all the adjectives?' but,
`Is his last name nice and short and his first name just a bit
longer?' You see? The `Bell' is done in huge silver letters,
and the `Howard' fits neatly across the top in slightly
narrower ones. Instant trade mark. It's publishing magic. Once
you've got a name like that then whether you can actually write
or not is a minor matter. Which in Howard Bell's case is now a
significant bonus. But it's a very ordinary name if you write
it down in the normal way, like it is here you see."
"What?" said Dirk.
"Here on this envelope of yours."
"Where? Let me see."
"That's his name there, isn't it? Crossed out."
"Good heavens, you're right," said Dirk, peering at the
envelope. "I suppose I didn't recognise it without its trade
mark shape."
"Is this something to do with him, then?" asked Kate,
picking it up and looking it over.
"I don't know what it is, exactly," said Dirk. "It's
something to do with a contract, and it may be something to do
with a record."
"I can see it might be to do with a record."
"How can you see that?" asked Dirk, sharply.
"Well, this name here is Dennis Hutch, isn't it? See?"
"Oh yes. Yes, I do," said Dirk, examining it for himself.
"Er, should I know that name?"
"Well," said Kate slowly, "it depends if you're alive or
not, I suppose. He's the head of the Aries Rising Record Group.
Less famous than the Pope, I grant you, but - you know of the
Pope I take it?"
"Yes, yes," said Dirk impatiently, "white-haired chap."
"That's him. He seems to be about the only person of note
this envelope hasn't been addressed to at some time. Here's
Stan Dubcek, the head of Dubcek, Danton, Heidegger, Draycott. I
know they handle the ARRGH! account."
"The...?"
"ARRGH! Aries Rising Record Group Holdings. Getting that
account made the agency's fortunes."
She looked at Dirk.
"You have the air," she stated, "of one who knows little
of the record business or the advertising business."
"I have that honour," said Dirk, graciously inclining his
head.
"So what are you doing with this?"
"When I manage to get it open, I'll know," said Dirk. "Do
you have a knife on you?"
Kate shook her head.
"Who's Geoffrey Anstey, then?" she asked. "He's the only
name not crossed out. Friend of yours?"
Dirk paled a little and didn't immediately answer. Then he
said, "This strange person you mentioned, this `Something Nasty
in the Woodshead' creature. Tell me again what he said to you."
"He said, `I, too, have the advantage of you, Miss
Schechter.'" Kate tried to shrug.
Dirk weighed his thoughts uncertainly for a moment.
"I think it is just possible," he said at last, "that you
may be in some kind of danger."
"You mean it's possible that passing lunatics may crash
into me in the road? That kind of danger?"
"Maybe even worse."
"Oh yeah?"
"Yes."
"And what makes you think that?"
"It's not entirely clear to me yet," replied Dirk with a
frown. "Most of the ideas I have at the moment have to do with
things that are completely impossible, so I am wary about
sharing them. They are, however, the only thoughts I have."
"I'd get some different ones, then," said Kate. "What was
the Sherlock Holmes principle? `Once you have discounted the
impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be
the truth."'
"I reject that entirely," said Dirk, sharply. "The
impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely
improbable lacks. How often have you been presented with an
apparently rational explanation of something which works in all
respects other than one, which is just that it is hopelessly
improbable? Your instinct is to say, `Yes, but he or she simply
wouldn't do that.'"
"Well, it happened to me today, in fact," replied Kate.
"Ah yes," said Dirk, slapping the table and making the
glasses jump, "your girl in the wheelchair - a perfect example.
The idea that she is somehow receiving yesterday's stock market
prices apparently out of thin air is merely impossible, and
therefore must be the case, because the idea that she is
maintaining an immensely complex and laborious hoax of no
benefit to herself is hopelessly improbable. The first idea
merely supposes that there is something we don't know about,
and God knows there are enough of those. The second, however,
runs contrary to something fundamental and human which we do
know about. We should therefore be very suspicious of it and
all its specious rationality."
"But you won't tell me what you think."
"No."
"Why not?"
"Because it sounds ridiculous. But I think you are in
danger. I think you might be in horrible danger."
"Great. So what do you suggest I do about it?" said Kate
taking a sip of her second drink, which otherwise had stayed
almost untouched.
"I suggest," said Dirk seriously, "that you come back to
London and spend the night in my house."
Kate hooted with laughter and then had to fish out a
Kleenex to wipe tomato juice off herself.
"I'm sorry, what is so extraordinary about that?" demanded
Dirk, rather taken aback.
"It's just the most wonderfully perfunctory pick-up line
I've ever heard." She smiled at him. "I'm afraid the answer is
a resounding `no'."
He was, she thought, interesting, entertaining in an
eccentric kind of way, but also hideously unattractive to her.
Dirk felt very awkward. "I think there has been some
appalling misunderstanding," he said. "Allow me to explain that
- "
He was interrupted by the sudden arrival in their midst of
the mechanic from the garage with news of Kate's car.
"Fixed it," he said. "In fact there were nothing to fix
other than the bumper. Nothing new that is. The funny noise you
mentioned were just the engine. But it'll go all right. You
just have to rev her up, let in the ctutch, and then wait for a
little bit longer than you might normally expect."
Kate thanked him a little stiffly for this advice and then
insisted on atlowing Dirk to pay the ё25 he was charging for
it.
Outside, in the car park, Dirk repeated his urgent request
that Kate should go with him, but she was adamant that all she
needed was a good night's sleep and that everything would look
bright and clear and easily capable of being coped with in the
morning.
Dirk insisted that they should at least exchange phone
numbers. Kate agreed to this on condition that Dirk found
another route back to London and didn't sit on her tail.
"Be very careful," Dirk called to her as her car grumbled
out on to the road.
"I will," shouted Kate, "and if anything impossible
happens, I promise you'll be the first to know."
For a brief moment, the yellow undulations of the car
gleamed dully in the light leaking from the pub windows and
stood out against the heavily hunched greyness of the night sky
which soon swallowed it up.
Dirk tried to follow her, but his car wouldn't start.

Chapter 15

The clouds sank more heavily over the land, clenching into
huge sullen towers, as Dirk, in a sudden excess of alarm, had
to call out the man from the garage once again. He was slower
to arrive with his truck this time and bad-tempered with drink
when at last he did.
He emitted a few intemperate barks of laughter at Dirk's
predicament, then fumbled the bonnet of his car open and
subjected him to all kinds of muttered talk about manifolds,
pumps, alternators and starlings and resolutely would not be
drawn on whether or not he was going to be able to get the
thing to go again that night.
Dirk was unable to get a meaningful answer, or at least an
answer that meant anything to him, as to what was causing the
rumpus in the alternator, what ailed the fuel pump, in what way
the operation of the starter motor was being disrupted and why
the timing was off.
He did at last understand that the mechanic was also
claiming that a family of starlings had at some time in the
past made their nest in a sensitive part of the engine's
workings and had subsequently perished horribly, taking
sensitive parts of the engine with them, and at this point Dirk
began to cast about himself desperatety for what to do.
He noticed that the mechanic's pick-up truck was standing
nearby with its engine still running, and elected to make off
with this instead. Being a slightly less slow and cumbersome
runner than the mechanic he was able to put this plan into
operation with a minimum of difficulty.
He swung out into the lane, drove off into the night and
parked three miles down the road. He left the van's lights on,
let down its tyres and hid himself behind a tree. After about
ten minutes his Jaguar came hurtling round the corner, passed
the van, hauled itself to an abrupt halt and reversed wildly
back towards it. The mechanic threw open the door, leapt out
and hurried over to reclaim his property, leaving Dirk with the
opportunity he needed to leap from behind the tree and reclaim
his own.
He spun his wheels pointedly and drove off in a kind of
grim triumph, still haunted, nevertheless, by anxieties to
which he was unable:to give a name or shape.
Kate, in the meantime, had joined the dimly glowing yellow
stream that led on eventually through the westem suburbs of
Acton and Ealing and into the heart of London. She crawled up
over the Westway flyover and soon afterwards turned north up
towards Primrose Hill and home.
She always enjoyed driving up alongside the park, and the
dark night shapes of the trees soothed her and made her long
for the quietness of her bed.
She found the nearest parking space she could to her front
door, which was about thirty yards distant. She climbed out of
the car and carefully omitted to lock it. She never left
anything of value in it, and she found that it was to her
advantage if people didn't have to break anything in order to
find that out. The car had been stolen twice, but on each
occasion it had been found abandoned twenty yards away.
She didn't go straight home but set off instead in the
opposite direction to get some milk and bin liners frmm the
small corner shop in the next street. She agreed with the
gentle-faced Pakistani who ran it that she did indeed look
tired, and should have an early night, but on the way back she
made another small diversion to go and lean against the
railings of the park, gaze into its darkness for a few minutes,
and breathe in some of its cold, heavy night air. At last she
started to head back towards her flat. She turned into her own
road and as she passed the first street lamp it flickered and
went out, leaving her in a small pool of darkness.
That sort of thing always gives one a nasty turn.
It is said that there is nothing surprising about the
notion of, for instance, a person suddenly thinking about
someone they haven't thought about for years, and then
discovering the next day that the person has in fact just died.
There are always lots of people suddenly remembering people
they haven't thought about for ages, and always lots of people
dying. In a population the size of, say, America the law of
averages means that this particular coincidence must happen at
least ten times a day, but it is none the less spooky to anyone
who experiences it.
By the same token, there are light bulbs burning out in
street lamps all the time, and a fair few of them must go pop
just as someone is passing beneath them. Even so, it still
gives the person concerned a nasty tum, especially when the
very next street lamp they pass under does exactly the same
thing.
Kate stood rooted to the spot.
If one coincidence can occur, she told herself, then
another coincidence can occur. And if one coincidence happens
to occur just after another coincidence, then that is just a
coincidence. There was absolutely nothing to feel alarmed about
in having a couple of street lamps go pop. She was in a
perfectly normal friendly street with houses all around her
with their lights on. She looked up at the house next to her,
unfortunately just as the lights in its front window chanced to
go out. This was presumably because the occupants happened to
choose that moment to leave the room, but though it just went
to show what a truly extraordinary thing coincidence can be it
did tittle to improve her state of mind.
The rest of the street was still bathed in a dim yellow
glow. It was only the few feet immediatety around her that were
suddenly dark. The next pool of light was just a few footsteps
away in front of her. She took a deep breath, pulled herself
together, and walked towards it, reaching its very centre at
the exact instant that it, too, extinguished itself.
The occupants of the two houses she had passed on the way
also happened to choose that moment to leave their front rooms,
as did their neighbours on the opposite side of the street.
Perhaps a poputar television show had just finished.
That's what it was. Evervone was getting up and turning off
their TV sets and lights simultaneously, and the resulting
power surge was blowing some of the street lamps. Something
like that. The resulting power surge was also making her blood
pound a little. She moved on, trying to be calm. As soon as she
got home she'd have a look in the paper to see what the
programme had been that had caused three street lamps to blow.
Four.
She stopped and stood absolutely stitl under the dark
lamp. More houses were darkening. What she found particularty
alarming was that they darkened at the very moment that she
looked at them.
Glance - pop.
She tried it again.
Glance - pop.
Each one she looked at darkened instantly.
Glance - pop.
She realised with a sudden start of fear that she must
stop herself looking at the ones that were still lit. The
rationalisations she had been trying to construct were now
running around inside her head screaming to be let out and she
let them go. She tried to lock her eyes to the ground for fear
of extinguishing the whole street, but couldn't help tiny
glances to see if it was working.
Glance - pop.
She froze her gaze, down on to the narrow path forward.
Most of the road was dark now.
There were three remaining street lamps between her and
the front door which led to her own flat. Though she kept her
eyes averted, she thought she could detect on the periphery of
her vision that the lights of the flat downstairs from hers
were lit.
Neil lived there. She couldn't remember his last name, but
he was a part-time bass-player and antiques dealer who used to
give her decorating advice she didn't want and also stole her
milk - so her relationship with him had always remained at a
slightly frosty level. Just at the moment, though, she was
praying that he was there to tell her what was wrong with her
sofa, and that his light would not go out as her eyes wavered
from the pavement in front of her, with its three remaining
pools of light spaced evenly along the way she had to tread.
For a moment she tried turning, and looked back the way
she had come. All was darkness, shading off into the blackness
of the park which no longer calmed but menaced her, with
hideously imagined thick, knotted roots and treacherous, dark,
rotting litter.
Again she turned, sweeping her eyes low.
Three pools of light.
The street lights did not extinguish as she looked at
them, only as she passed.
She squeezed her eyes closed and visualised exactly where
the lamp of the next street light was, above and in front of
her. She raised her head, and carefully opened her eyes again,
staring directly into the orange glow radiating through the
thick glass.
It shone steadily.
With her eyes locked fast on it so that it burnt squiggles
on her retina, she moved cautiously forward, step by step,
exerting her will on it to stay burning as she approached. It
continued to glow.
She stepped forward again. It continued to glow. Again she
stepped, still it glowed. Now she was almost beneath it,
craning her neck to keep it in focus.
She moved forward once more, and saw the filament within
the glass flicker and quickly die away, leaving an after-image
prancing madly in her eyes.
She dropped her eyes now and tried looking steadily
forward, but wild shapes were leaping everywhere and she felt
she was losing control. The next lamp she took a lunging run
towards, and again, sudden darkness enveloped her arrival. She
stopped there panting, and blinking, trying to calm herself
again and get her vision sorted out. Looking towards the last
street lamp, she thought she saw a figure standing beneath it.
It was a large form, silhouetted with jumping orange shadows.
Huge horns stood upon the figure's head.
She stated with mad intensity into the billowing darkness,
and suddenly screamed at it, "Who are you?"
There was a pause, and then a deep answering voice said,
"Do you have anything that can get these bits of floorboard off
my back?"

Chapter 16

There was another pause, of a different and slightly
disordered quality.
It was a long one. lt hung there nervously, wondering
which direction it was going to get broken from. The darkened
street took on a withdrawn, defensive aspect.
"What?" Kate screamed back at the figure, at last. "I
said... what?"
The great figure stirred. Kate still could not see him
properly because her eyes were still dancing with blue shadows,
seared there by the orange light.
"1 was," said the figure, "glued to the floor. My father -
"
"Did you...are you..." Kate quivered with
incoherent rage "are you responsible. . .for all this?"
She turned and swept an angry hand around the street to
indicate the nightmare she had just traversed.
"It is important that you know who I am."
"Oh yeah?" said Kate. "Well let's get the name down right
now so I can take it straight to the police and get you done
for breach of something wilful or other. Intimidation.
Interfering with - "
"I am Thor. I am the God of Thunder. The God of Rain. The
God of the High Towering Clouds. The God of Lightning. The God
of the Flowing Currents. The God of the Particles. The God of
the Shaping and the Binding Forces. The God of the Wind. The
God of the Growing Crops. The God of the Hammer Mjollnir."
"Are you?" simmered Kate. "Well, I've no doubt that if
you'd picked a slack moment to mention all that, I might have
taken an interest, but right now it just makes me very angry.
Turn the damn lights on!"
"I am - "
"I said turn the lights on!"
With something of a sheepish glow, the streetlights all
came back on, and the windows of the houses all quietly
illuminated themselves once more. The lamp above Kate popped
again almost immediately. She shot him a warning look.
"It was an old light, and infirm," he said.
She simply continued to glare at him.
"See," he said, "I have your address." He held out the
piece of paper she had given him at the airport, as if that
somehow explained everything and put the world to rights.
"I - "
"Back!" he shouted, throwing up his arms in front of his
face.
"What?"
With a huge rush of wind a swooping eagle dropped from out
of the night sky, with its talons outspread to catch at him.
Thor beat and thrashed at it until the great bird flailed
backwards, turned, nearly crashed to the ground, recovered
itself, and with great slow beats of its wings, heaved itself
back up through the air and perched on top of the street lamp.
It grasped the lamp hard with its talons and steadied itself,
making the whole lamppost quiver very slightly in its grip.
"Go!" shouted Thor at it.
The eagle sat there and peered down at him. A monstrous
creature made more monstrous by the effect of the orange light
on which it perched, casting huge, flapping shadows on the
nearby houses, it had strange circular markings on its wings.
These were markings that Kate wondered if she had seen before,
only in a nightmare, but then again, she was by no means
certain that she was not in a nightmare now.
There was no doubt that she had found the man she was
looking for. The same huge form, the same glacial eyes, the
same look of arrogant exasperation and slight muddle, only this
time his feet were plunged into huge hide boots, great furs,
straps and thongs hung from his shoulders, a huge steel horned
helmet stood on his head, and his exasperation was directed
this time not at an airline check-in girl but at a huge eagle
perched on a lamppost in the middle of Primrose Hill.
"Go," he shouted at it again. "The matter is beyond my
power! All that I can do I have done! Your family is provided
for. You I can do nothing more for! I myself am powerless and
sick."
Kate was suddenly shocked to see that there were great
gouges on the big man's left forearm where the eagle had got
its talons into him and ripped them through his skin. Blood was
welling up out of them like bread out of a baking tin.
"Go!" he shouted again. With the edge of one hand he
scraped the blood off his other arm and flung the heavy drops
at the eagle, which reared back, flapping, but retained its
hold. Suddenly the man leapt high into the air and grappled
himself to the top of the lamppost, which now began to shake
dangerously under their combined weight. With loud cries the
eagle pecked viciously at him while he tried with great swings
of his free arm to sweep it from its perch.
A door opened. It was the front door of Kate's house and a
man with grey-rimmed spectacles and a neat moustache looked
out. It was Neil, Kate's downstairs neighbour, in a mood.
"Look, I really think - " he started. However, it quickly
became clear that he simply didn't know what to think and
retreated back indoors, taking his mood, unsatisfied, with him.
The big man braced himself, and with a huge leap hurled
himself through the air and landed with a slight, controlled
wobble on top of the next lamppost, which bent slightly under
his weight. He crouched, glaring at the eagle, which glared
back.
"Go!" he shouted again, brandishing his arm at it.
"Gaarh!" it screeched back at him.
With another swing of his arm he pulled from under his
furs a great short-handled sledge-hammer and hefted its great
weight meaningfully from one hand to another. The head of the
hammer was a roughly cast piece of iron about the size and
shape of a pint of beer in a big glass mug, and its shaft was a
stocky, wrist-thick piece of ancient oak with leather
strapping bound about its handle.
"Gaaaarrrh!" screeched the eagle again, but regarded the
sledgehammer with keen-eyed suspicion. As Thor began slowly to
swing the hammer, the eagle shifted its weight tensely from one
leg to the other, in time to the rhythm of the swings.
"Go!" said Thor again, more, quietly, but with greater
menace. He rose to his full height on top of the lamppost, and
swung the hammer faster and faster in a great circle. Suddenly
he hurled it directly towards the eagle. In the same instant a
bolt of high voltage electricity erupted from the lamp on which
the eagle was sitting, causing it to leap with loud cries
wildly into the air. The hammer sailed harmlessly under the
lamp, swung up into the air and out over the darkness of the
park, while Thor, released of its weight, wobbled and tottered
on top of his lamppost, spun round and regained his balance.
Flailing madly at the air with its huge wings, the eagle, too,
regained control of itself, flew upwards, made one last diving
attack on Thor, which the god leapt backwards off the lamppost
to avoid, and then climbed up and away into the night sky in
which it quickly became a small, dark speck, and then at last
was gone.
The hammer came bounding back from out of the sky, scraped
flying sparks from the paving-stones with its head, turned over
twice in the air and then dropped its head back to the ground
next to Kate and nested its shaft gently against her leg.
An elderly lady who had been waiting patiently with her
dog in the shadows beneath the street lamp, which was now
defunct, sensed, correctly, that all of the excitement was now
over and proceeded quietly past them. Thor waited politely till
they had passed and then approached Kate, who stood with her
arms folded watching him. After all the business of the last
two or three minutes he seemed suddenly not to have the
faintest idea what to say and for the moment merely gazed
thoughtfully into the middle distance.
Kate formed the distinct impression that thinking was, for
him, a separate activity from everything else, a task that
needed its own space. It could not easily be combined with
other activities such as walking or talking or buying airline
tickets.
"We'd better take a look at your arm," she said, and led
the way up the steps to her house. He followed, docile.
As she opened the front door she found Neil in the hall
leaning his back against the wall and looking with grim
pointedness at a Coca-Cola vending machine standing against the
opposite wall and taking up an inordinate amount of space in
the hallway.
"I don't know what we're going to do about this, I really
don't," he said.
"What's it doing there?" asked Kate.
"Well, that's what I'm asking you, I'm afraid," said Neil.
"I don't know how you're going to get it up the stairs. Don't
see how it can be done to be perfectly frank with you. And
let's face it, I don't think you're going to like it once
you've got it up there. I know it's very modern and American,
but think about it, you've got that nice French cherrywood
table, that sofa which will be very nice once you've taken off
that dreadful Collier Campbell covering like I keep on saying
you should, only you won't listen, and I just don't see that
it's going to fit in, not in either sense. And I'm not even
sure that I should allow it, I mean it's a very heavy object
and you know what I've said to you about the floors in this
house. I'd think again, I really would, you know."
"Yes, Neil, how did it get here?"
"Well, your friend here delivered it just an hour or so
ago. I don't know where he's been working out, but I must say I
wouldn't mind paying his gym a visit. I said I thought the
whole thing was very doubtful but he would insist and in the
end I even had to give him a hand. But I must say that I think
we need to have a very serious think about the whole topic. I
asked your friend if he liked Wagner but he didn't respond very
well. So, I don't know, what do you want to do about it?"
Kate took a deep breath. She suggested to her huge guest
that he carry on upstairs and she would see him in just a
moment. Thor lumbered past, and was an absurd figure mounting
the stairs.
Neil watched Kate's eyes very closely for a clue as to
what, exactly, was going on, but Kate was as blank as she knew
how.
"I'm sorry, Neil," she said, matter-of-factly. "The Coke
machine will go. It's all a misunderstanding. I'll get this
sorted out by tomorrow."
"Yes, that's all very well," said Neil, "but where does
all this leave me? I mean, you see my problem."
"No, Neil, I don't."
"Well, I've got this...thing out here, you've got
that...person upstairs, and the whole thing is just a total
disruption."
"Is there anything I can do to make anything any better?"
"Well it's not as easy as that, is it? I mean, I think you
should just think about it a bit, that's all. I mean, all this.
You told me you were going away. I heard the bath running this
afternoon. What was I to think? And after you had gone on about
the cat, and you know I won't work with cats."
"I know; Neil. That's why I asked Mrs Grey next door to
look after her."
"Yes, and look what happened to her. Died of a heart
attack. Mr Grey's very upset, you know."
"I don't think it had anything to do with me asking her if
she would look after my cat."
"Well, all I can say is that he's very upset."
"Yes, Neil. His wife's died."
"Well, I'm not saying anything. I'm just saying I think
you should think about it. And what on earth are we going to do
about all this?" he added, re-addressing his attention to the
Coca-Cola machine.
"I've said that I will make sure it's gone in the morning
Neil," said Kate. "I'm quite happy to stand here and scream
very loudly if you think it will help in any way, but - "
"Listen, love, I'm only making the point. And I hope
you're not going to be making a lot of noise up there because
I've got to practise my music tonight, and you know that I need
quiet to concentrate." He gave Kate a meaningful look over the
top of his glasses and disappeared into his flat.
Kate stood and silently counted as much of one to ten as
she could currently remember and then headed staunchly up the
stairs in the wake of the God of Thunder, feeling that she was
not in a mood for either weather or theology. The house began
to throb and shake to the sound of the main theme of The
Ride of
the Valkyries being played on a Fender
Precision bass.

Chapter 17

As Dirk edged his way along the Euston Road, caught in the
middle of a rush hour traffic jam that had started in the late
nineteen seventies and which, at a quarter to ten on this
Thursday evening, still showed no signs of abating, he thought
he caught sight of something he recognised.
It was his subconscious which told him this - that
infuriating part of a person's brain which never responds to
interrogation merely gives little meaningful nudges and then
sits humming quietly to itself, saying nothing.
"Well of course I've just seen something I recognise,"
Dirk muttered mentally to his subconscious. "I drive along this
benighted thoroughfare twenty times a month. I expect I
recognise every single matchstick lying in the gutter. Can't
you be a little more specific?" His subconscious would not be
hectored though, and was dumb. It had nothing further to add.
The city was probably full of grey vans anyway. Very
unremarkable.
"Where?" muttered Dirk to himself fiercely, twisting round
in his seat this way and that. "Where did I see a grey van?"
Nothing.
He was thoroughly hemmed in by the traffic and could not
manoeuvre in any direction, least of all forward. He erupted
from his car and started to jostle his way back through the
jammed cars bobbing up and down to try and see where, if
anywhere, he might have caught a glimpse of a grey van. If he
had seen one, it eluded him now. His subconscious sat and said
nothing.
The traffic was still not moving, so he tried to thread
his way further back, but was obstructed by a large motorcycle
courier edging his way forward on a huge grimy Kawasaki. Dirk
engaged in a brief altercation with the courier, but lost it
because the courier was unable to hear Dirk's side of the
altercation; eventually Dirk retreated through the tide of
traffic which now was beginning slowly to move in all lanes
other than the one in which his car sat, driverless, immobile
and hooted at.
He felt suddenly elated by the braying of the motor horns,
and as he swayed and bobbed his way back through the snarled up
columns of cars, he suddenly found that he reminded himself of
the crazies he had seen on the streets of New York, who would
career out into the road to explain to the oncoming traffic
about the Day of Judgement, imminent alien invasions and
incompetence and corruption in the Pentagon. He put his hands
above his head and started to shout out, "The Gods are walking
the Earth! The Gods are walking the Earth!"
This further inflamed the feelings of those who were
beeping their horns at his stationary car, and quickly the
whole rose through a crescendo of majestic cacophony, with
Dirk's voice ringing out above it.
"'The Gods are walking the Earth! The Gods are walking the
Earth!" he hollered. "The Gods are walking the Earth ! Thank
you!" he added, and ducked down into his car, put it into Drive
and pulled away, allowing the whole jammed mass at last to
seethe easily forward.
He wondered why he was so sure. An "Act of God". Merety a
chance, careless phrase by which people were able to dispose
conveniently of awkward phenomena that would admit of no more
rational explanation. But it was the chance carelessness of it
which particularly appealed to Dirk because words used
carelessly, as if they did not matter in any serious way, often
allowed otherwise well-guarded truths to seep through.
Ao inexplicable disappearance. Oslo and a hammer: a tiny,
tiny coincidence which struck a tiny, tiny note. However, it
was a note which sang in the midst of the daily hubbub of white
noise, and other tiny notes were singing at the same pitch. An
Act of God, Oslo, and a hammer. A man with a hammer, trying to
go to Norway, is prevented, loses his temper, and as a result
there is an "Act of God".
If, thought Dirk, if a being were immortal he would still
be alive today. That, quite simply, was what "immortal" meant.
How would an immortal being have a passport?
Quite simpty, how? Dirk tried to imagine what might happen
if - to pick a name quite at random - the God Thor, he of the
Norwegian ancestry and the great hammer, were to arrive at the
passport office and try to explain who he was and how come he
had no birth certificate. There would be no shock, no horror,
no loud exclamations of astonishment, just blank, bureaucratic
impossibility. It wouldn't be a matter of whether anybody
believed him or not, it would simply be a question of producing
a valid birth certificate. He coutd stand there wreaking
miracles all day if he liked but at close of business, if he
didn't have a valid birth certificate, he would simply be asked
to leave.
And credit cards.
If, to sustain for a moment the same arbitrary hypothesis,
the God Thor were alive and for some reason at large in
England, then he would probably be the only person in the
country who did not receive the constant barrage of invitations
to apply for an American Express card, crude threats by the
same post to take their American Express cards away, and gift
catalogues full of sumptuously unpleasant things, lavishly
tooled in naff brown plastic.
Dirk found the idea quite breathtaking.
That is, if he were the only god at large - which, once
you were to accept the first extravagant hypothesis, was hardly
likely to be the case.
But imagine for a moment such a person attempting to leave
the country, armed with no passport, no credit cards, merely
the power to throw thunderbolts and who knew what else. You
would probably have to imagine a scene very similar to the one
that did in fact occur at Terminal Two, Heathrow.
But why, if you were a Norse god, would you be needing to
leave the country by means of a scheduled airline? Surely there
were other means? Dirk rather thought that one of the perks of
being an immortal divine might be the ability to fly under your
own power. From what he remembered of his reading of the Norse
legends many years ago, the gods were continually flying all
over the place and there was never any mention of them hanging
around in departure lounges eating crummy buns. Admittedly, the
world was not, in those days, bristling with airtraffic
controllers, radar, missile warning systems and such like.
Still, a quick hop across the North Sea shouldn't be that much
of a problem for a god, particularly if the weather was in your
favour, which, if you were the God of Thunder, you would pretty
much expect it to be, or want to know the reason why. Should
it?
Another tiny note sang in the back of Dirk's mind and then
was lost in the hubbub.
He wondered for a moment what it was like to be a whale.
Physically, he thought, he was probably well placed to get some
good insights, though whales were better adapted for their
lives of gliding about in the vast pelagic blueness than he was
for his of struggling up through the Pentonville Road traffic
in a weary old Jaguar - but what he was thinking of, in fact,
was the whales' songs. In the past the whales had been able to
sing to each other across whole oceans, even from one ocean to
another because sound travels such huge distances underwater.
But now, again because of the way in which sound travels, there
is no part of the ocean that is not constantly jangling with
the hubbub of ships' motors, through which it is now virtually
impossible for the whales to hear each other's songs or
messages.
So fucking what, is pretty much the way that people tend
to view this problem, and understandably so, thought Dirk.
After all, who wants to hear a bunch of fat fish, oh all right,
mammals, burping at each other?
But for a moment Dirk had a sense of infinite loss and
sadness that somewhere amongst the frenzy of information noise
that daily rattled the lives of men he thought he might have
heard a few notes that denoted the movements of gods.
As he turned north into Islington and began the long haul
up past the pizza restaurants and estate agents, he felt almost
frantic at the idea of what their lives must now be like.

Chapter 18

Thin fingers of lightning spread out across the heavy
underside of the great clouds which hung from the sky like a
sagging stomach. A small crack of fretful thunder nagged at it
and dragged from it a few mean drops of greasy drizzle.
Beneath the sky ranged a vast assortment of wild turrets,
gnarled spires and pinnacles which prodded at it, goaded and
inflamed it till it seemed it would burst and drown them in a
flood of festering horrors.
High in the flickering darkness, silent figures stood
guard behind long shields, dragons crouched gaping at the foul
sky as Odin, father of the Gods of Asgard, approached the great
iron portals through which led to his domain and on into the
vaulted halls of Valhalla: The air was full of the noiseless
howls of great winged dogs, welcoming their master to the seat
of his rule. Lightning searched among the towers and turrets.
The great, ancient and immortal God of Asgard was
returning to the current site of his domain in a manner that
would have surprised even him centuries ago in the years of the
prime of his life - for even the immortal gods have their
primes, when their powers are rampant and they both nourish and
hold sway over the world of men, the world whose needs give
them birth - he was returning in a large, unmarked grey
Mercedes van.
The van drew to a halt in a secluded area.
The cab door opened and there climbed down from it a dull,
slow-faced man in an unmarked grey uniform. He was a man who
was charged with the work he did in life because he was not one
to ask questions - not so much on account of any natural
quality of discretion as because he simply could never think of
any questions to ask. Moving with a slow, rolling gait, like a
paddle being pulled through porridge, he made his way to the
rear of the van and opened the rear doors - an elaborate
procedune involving the co-ordinated manipulation of many
sliders and levers.
At length the doors swung open, and if Kate had been
present she might for a moment have been jolted by the thought
that perhaps the van was carrying Albanian electricity after
all. A haze of light greeted Hillow - the man's. name was
Hillow - but nothing about this struck him as odd. A haze of
light was simply what he expected to see whenever he opened
this door. The first time ever he had opened it he had simply
thought to himself, "Oh. A haze of light. Oh well," and more or
less Ieft it at that, on the strength of which he had
guaranteed himself regular employment for as long as he cared
to live.
The haze of light subsided and coalesced into the shape of
an old, old man in a trolley bed attended by a short little
figure whom HiIlow would probably have thought was the most
evil-looking person he had ever seen if he had had a mind to
recall the other people he had seen in his life and run through
them all one by one, making the comparison. That, however, was
harder than Hillow wished to work. His only concern at present
was to assist the small figure with the decanting of the old
man's bed on to ground leveI.
This was fluently achieved. The legs and wheels of the bed
were a miracle of smoothly operating stainless steel
technology. They unlocked, rolled, swivelled, in elaborately
interlocked movements which made the negotiating of steps or
bumps all part of the same fluid, gliding motion.
To the right of this area lay a large ante-chamber
panelled in finely carved wood with great marble torch holders
standing proudly from the walls. This in turn led into the
great vaulted hall itself. To the left, however, lay the
entrance to the majestic inner chambers where Odin would go to
prepare himself for the encounters of the night.
He hated all this. Hounded from his bed, he muttered to
himself, though in truth he was bringing his bed with him. Made
to listen once again to all kinds of self indulgent clap-trap
from his bone-headed thunderous son who would not accept, could
not accept, simply did not have the intelligence to accept the
new realities of life. If he would not accept them then he must
be extinguished, and tonight Asgard would see the extinction of
an immortal god. It was all, thought Odin fractiously, too much
for someone at his time of life, which was extremely advanced,
but not in any particular direction.
He wanted merely to stay in his hospital, which he loved.
The arrangement which had brought him to that place was of the
sweetest kind and though it was not without its cost, it was a
cost that simply had to be borne and that was all there was to
it. There were new realities, and he had learned to embrace
them. Those who did not would simply have to suffer the
consequences. Nothing came of nothing, even for a god.
Aher tonight he could return to his life in the Woodshead
indefinitely, and that would be good. He said as much to
Hillow.
"Clean white sheets," he said to Hillow, who merely
nodded, blankly. "Linen sheets. Every day, clean sheets."
Hillow manoeuvred the bed arnund and up a step.
"Being a god, Hillow," continued Odin, "being a god, well,
it was unclean, you hear what I'm saying? There was no one who
took care of the sheets. I mean really took care of them. Would
you think that? In a situation like mine? Father of the Gods?
There was no one, absolutely no one, who came in and said, `Mr
Odwin,'" - he chuckled to himself - "they call me Mr Odwin
there, you know. They don't quite know who they're dealing
with. I don't think they could handle it, do you, Hillow? But
there was no one in all that time who came in and said, `Mr
Odwin, I have changed your bed and you have clean sheets.' No
one. There was constant talk about hewing things and ravaging
things and splitting things asunder. Lots of big talk of things
being mighty, and of things being riven, and of things being in
thrall to other things, but very little attention given, as I
now realise, to the laundry. Let me give you an example..."
His reminiscences were for a moment interrupted, however,
by the arrival of his vehicle at a great doorway which was
guarded by a great sweaty splodge of a being who stood swaying,
arms akimbo, in their path. Toe Rag, who had been preserving an
intense silence as he stalked along just ahead of the bed,
hurried forward and had a quick word with the sweating
creature, who had to bend, red-faced, to hear him. Then
instantly the sweaty creature shrank back with glistening
obsequiousness into its yellow lair, and the sacred trolley
rolled forward into the great halls, chambers and corridors
from which great gusty echoes roared and fetid odours blew.
"Let me give you an example, Hillow," continued Odin.
"Take this place for example. Take Valhalla. . ."

Chapter 19

Turning north was a manoeuvre which normally had the
effect of restoring a sense of reason and sanity to things, but
Dirk could not escape a sense of foreboding.
Furthermore it came on to rain a little, which should have
helped, but it was such mean and wretched rain to come from
such a heavy sky that it only increased the sense of
claustrophobia and frustration which gripped the night. Dirk
turned on the car wipers which grumbled because they didn't
have quite enough rain to wipe away, so he turned them off
again. Rain quickly speckled the windscreen.
He turned on the wipers again, but they still refused to
feel that the exercise was worthwhile, and scraped and squeaked
in protest. The streets turned treacherously slippery.
Dirk shook his head. He was being quite absurd, he told
himself, in the worst possible way. He had allowed himself to
become fanciful in a manner that he quite despised. He
astounded himself at the wild fantasies he had built on the
flimsiest amount of, well he would hardly call it evidence,
mere conjecture.
An accident at an airport. Probably a simple explanation.
A man with a hammer. So what?
A grey van which Kate Schechter had seen at the hospital.
Nothing unusual about that. Dirk had nearly collided with it,
but again, that was a perfectly commonplace occurrence.
A Coca-Cola machine: he hadn't taken that into account.
Where did a Coca-Cola machine fit into these wild notions
about ancient gods? The only idea he had about that was simply
too ridiculous for words and he refused even to acknowledge it
to himself.
At that point Dirk found himself driving past the house
where, that very moming, he had encountered a client of his who
had had his severed head placed on a revolving record turntable
by a green-eyed devil-figure waving a scythe and a blood-signed
contract who had then vanished into thin air.
He peered at it as he passed, and when a large dark-blue
BMW pulled out from the kerb just ahead of him he ran straight
into the back of it, and for the second time that day he had to
leap out of his car, already shouting.
"For God's sake can't you look where you're going?" he
exclaimed, in the hope of bagging his adversary's best lines
from the outset. "Stupid people!" he continued, without pausing
for breath. "Careering all over the place. Driving without due
care and attention! Reckless assault!" Confuse your enemy, he
thought. lt was a little like phoning somebody up, and saying
"Yes? Hello?" in a testy voice when they answered, which was
one of Dirk's favourite methods of whiling away long, hot
summer afternoons. He bent down and examined the palpable dent
in the rear of the BMW, which was quite obviously, damn it, a
brand new one. Blast and bugger it, thought Dirk.
"Look what you've done to my bumper!" he cried. "I hope
you have a good lawyer!"
"I am a good lawyer," said a quiet voice which was
followed by a quiet click. Dirk looked up in momentary
apprehension. The quiet click was only the sound of the car
door closing.
The man was wearing an Italian suit, which was also quiet.
He had quiet glasses, quietly cut hair, and though a bow-tie is
not, by its very nature, a quiet object, the particular bow-tie
he wore was, nevertheless, a very quietly spotted example of
the genre. He drew a slim wallet from his pocket and also a
slim silver pencil. He walked without fuss to the rear of
Dirk's Jaguar and made a note of the registration number.
"Do you have a card?" he enquired as he did so, without
looking up. "Here's mine," he added, taking one from his
wallet. He made a note on the back of it. "My registration
number," he said, "and the name of my insurance company.
Perhaps you would be good enough to let me have the name of
yours. If you don't have it with you, I'll got my girl to call
you."
Dirk sighed, and decided there was no point in putting up
a fight on this one. He fished out his wallet and leafed
through the various business cards that seemed to accumulate in
it as if from nowhere. He toyed for a second with the idea of
being Wesley Arlott, an ocean-going yacht navigation consultant
from, apparently, Arkansas, but then thought better of it. The
man had, after all, taken his registration number, and although
Dirk had no particular recollection of paying an insurance
premium of late, he also had no particular recollection of not
paying one either, which was a reasonably promising sign. He
handed over a bonafide card with a wince. The man looked at
it.
"Mr Gently," he said. "Private investigator. I'm sony,
private holistic investigator. OK."
He put the card away, taking no further interest.
Dirk had never felt so patronised in his life. At that
moment there was another quiet click from the other side of the
car. Dirk looked across to see a woman with red spectacles
standing there giving him a frozen half smile. She was the
woman he had spoken with over Geoffrey Anstey's garden wall
this morning, and the man, Dirk therefore supposed, was
probably her husband. He wondered for a second whether he
should wrestle them to the ground and question them rigorously
and violently, but he was suddenly feeling immensely tired and
run down.
He acknowledged the woman in red spectacles with a minute
inclination of his head.
"All done, Cynthia," said the man and flicked a smile on
and off at her. "It's all taken care of."
She nodded faintly, and the two of them climbed back into
their BMW and after a moment or two pulled away without fuss
and disappeared away down the road. Dirk looked at the card in
his hand. Clive Draycott. He was with a good firm of City
solicitors. Dirk stuck the card away in his wallet, climbed
despondently back into his car, and drove on back to his house,
where he found a large golden eagle sitting patiently on his
doorstep.

Chapter 20

Kate rounded on her guest as soon as they were both inside
her flat with the door closed and Kate could be reasonably
certain that Neil wasn't going to sneak back out of his flat
and lurk disapprovingly half way up the stairs. The
continuing thumping of his bass was at least her guarantee of
privacy.
"All right," she said fiercely, "so what is the deal with
the eagle then? What is the deal with all the street lights?
Huh?"
The Norse God of Thunder looked at her awkwardly. He had
to remove his great horned helmet because it was banging
against the ceiling and leaving scratch marks in the plaster.
He tucked it under his arm.
"What is the deal," continued Kate, "with the Coca-Cola
machine? What is the deal with the hammer? What, in short, is
the big deal? Huh?"
Thor said nothing. He frowned for a second in arrogant
irritation, then frowned in something that looked somewhat like
embarrassment, and then simply stood there and bled at her.
For a few seconds she resisted the impending internal
collapse of her attitude, and then realised it was just going
to go to hell anyway so she might as well go with it.
"OK," she muttered, "let's get all that cleaned up. I'll
find some antiseptic."
She went to rummage in the kitchen cupboard and returned
with a bottle to find Thor saying "No" at her.
"No what?" she said crossly, putting the bottle down on
the table with a bit of a bang.
"That," said Thor, and pushed the bottle back at her.
"No."
"What's the matter with it?"
Thor just shrugged and stared moodily at a corner of the
room. There was nothing that could be considered remotely
interesting in that comer of the room, so he was clearly
looking at it out of sheer bloody-mindedness.
"Look, buster," said Kate, "if I can call you buster, what
- "
"Thor," said Thor, "God of - "
"Yes," said Kate, "you've told me all the things you're
God of. I'm trying to clean up your arm."
"Sedra," said Thor, holding his bleeding arm out, but away
from her. He peered at it anxiously.
"What?"
"Crushed leaves of sedra. Oil of the kernel of the
apricot. Infusion of bitter orange blossom. Oil of almonds.
Sage and comfrey. Not this."
He pushed the bottle of antiseptic off the table and sank
into a mood.
"Right!" said Kate, picked up the bottle and hurled it at
him. It rebounded off his cheekbone leaving an instant red
mark. Thor lunged forward in a rage, but Kate simply stood her
ground with a finger pointed at him.
"You stay right there, buster!" she said, and he stopped.
"Anything special you need for that?"
Thor looked puzzled for a moment.
"That!" said Kate, pointing at the blossoming bruise on
his cheek.
"Vengeance," said Thor.
"I'll have to see what I can do," said Kate. She turned on
her heel and stalked out of the room.
Aher about two minutes of unseen activity Kate returned to
the room, trailed by wisps of steam.
"All right," she said, "come with me."
She led him into her bathroom. He followed her with a
great show of reluctance, but he followed her. Kate had been
trailed by wisps of steam because the bathroom was full of it.
The bath itself was overflowing with bubbles and gunk.
There were some bottles and pots, mostly empty, lined up
along a small shelf above the bath. Kate picked them up one by
one and displayed them at him.
"Apricot kernel oil," she said, and turned it upside down
to emphasise its emptiness. "All in there," she added, pointing
at the foaming bath.
"Neroli oil," she said, picking up the next one,
"distilled from the blossom of bitter oranges. All in there."
She picked up the next one. "Orange cream bath oil.
Contains almond oil. All in there."
She picked up the pots.
"Sage and comfrey," she said of one, "and sedra oil. One
of them's a hand cream and the other's hair conditioner, but
they're all in there, along with a tube of Aloe Lip Preserver,
some Cucumber Cleansing Milk, Honeyed Beeswax and Jojoba Oil
Cleanser, Rhassoul Mud, Seaweed and Birch Shampoo, Rich Night
Cream with Vitamin E, and a very great deal of cod liver oil.
I'm afraid I haven't got anything called `Vengeance', but
here's some Calvin Klein `Obsession'."
She took the stopper from a bottle of perfume and threw
the bottle in the bath:
"I'll be in the next room when you're done."Х
With that she marched out, and slammed the door on him.
She waited in the other room, firmly reading a book.

Chapter 21

For about a minute Dirk remained sitting motionless in his
car a few yards away from his front door. He wondered what his
next move should be. A small, cautious one, he rather thought.
The last thing he wanted to have to contend with at the moment
was a startled eagle.
He watched it intently. It stood there with a pert
magnificence about its bearing, its talons gripped tightly
round the edge of the stone step. From time to time it preened
itself, and then peered sharply up the street and down the
street, dragging one of its great talons across the stone in a
deeply worrying manner. Dirk admired the creature greatly for
its size and its plumage and its general sense of extreme
air-worthiness, but, asking himself if he liked the way that
the light from the street lamp glinted in its great glassy eye
or on the huge hook of its beak, he had to admit that he did
not.
The beak was a major piece of armoury.
It was a beak that would frighten any animal on earth,
even one that was already dead and in a tin. Its talons looked
as if they could rip up a small Volvo. And it was sitting
waiting on Dirk's doorstep, looking up and down the street with
a gaze that was at once meaningful and mean.
Dirk wondered if he should simply drive off and leave the
country. Did he have his passport? No. It was at home. It was
behind the door which was behind the eagle, in a drawer
somewhere or, more likely, lost.
He could sell up. The ratio of estate agents to actual
houses in the area was rapidly approaching parity. One of their
lot could come and deal with the house. He'd had enough of it,
with its fridges and its wildlife and its ineradicable position
on the mailing lists of the American Express company.
Or he could, he supposed with a slight shiver, just go and
see what it was the eagle wanted. There was a thought. Rats,
probably, or a small whippet. All Dirk had, to his knowledge,
was some Rice Krispies and an old muffin, and he didn't see
those appealing to this magisterial creature of the air. He
rather fancied that he could make out fresh blood congealing on
the bird's talons, but he told himself firmly not to be so
ridiculous.
He was just going to have to go and face up to the thing,
explain that he was fresh out of rats and take the
consequences.
Quietly, infinitely quietly, he pushed open the door of
his car, and stole out of it, keeping his head down. He peered
at it from over the bonnet of the car. It hadn't moved. That is
to say, it hadn't left the district. It was still looking this
way and that around itself with, possibly, a heightened sense
of alertness. Dirk didn't know in what remote mountain eyrie
the creature had learnt to listen out for the sound of Jaguar
car door hinges revolving in their sockets, but the sound had
clearly not escaped its attention.
Cautiously, Dirk bobbed along behind the line of cars that
had prevented him from being able to park directly outside his
own house. In a couple of seconds all that separated him from
the extraordinary creature was a small, blue Renault.
What next?
He could simply stand up and, as it were, declare himself.
He would be saying, in effect, "Here I am, do what you will."
Whatever then transpired, the Renault could probably bear the
brunt.
There was always the possibility, of course, that the
eagle would be pleased to see him, that all this swooping it
had been directing at him had been just its way of being matey.
Assuming, of course, that it was the same eagle. That was not
such an enormous assumption. The number of golden eagles at
large in North London at any one time was, Dirk guessed, fairly
small.
Or maybe it was just nesting on his doorstep completely by
chance, enjoying a quick breather prior to having another
hurtle through the sky in pursuit of whatever it is that eagles
hurtle through the sky after.
Whatever the explanation, now, Dirk realised, was the time
that he had simply to take his chances. He steeled himself,
took a deep breath and arose from behind the Renault, like a
spirit rising from the deep.
The eagle was looking in another direction at the time,
and it was a second or so before it looked back to the front
and saw him, at which point it reacted with a loud screech and
stepped back an inch or two, a reaction which Dirk felt a
little put out by. It then blinked rapidly a few times and
adopted a sort of perky expression of which Dirk did not have
the faintest idea what to make.
He waited for a second or two, until he felt the situation
had settled down again after all the foregoing excitement, and
then stopped forward tentatively, round the front of the
Renault. A number of quiet, interrogative cawing noises seemed
to float uncertainly through the air, and then after a moment
Dirk realised that he was making them himself and made himself
stop. This was an eagle he was dealing with, not a budgie.
It was at this point that he made his mistake.
With his mind entirely taken up with eagles, the possible
intentions of eagles, and the many ways in which eagles might
be considercd to differ from small kittens, he did not
concentrate enough on what he was doing as he stepped up out of
the road and on to a pavement that was slick with the recent
drizzle. As he brought his rear foot forward it caught on the
bumper of the car he wobbled, slipped, and then did that thing
which one should never do to a large eagle of uncertain temper,
which was to fling himself headlong at it with his arms
outstretched.
The eagle reacted instantly.
Without a second's hesitation it hopped neatly aside and
allowed Dirk the space he needed to collapse heavily on to his
own doorstep. It then peered down at him with a scorn that
would have withered a lesser man, or at least a man that had
been looking up at that moment.
Dirk groaned.
He had sustained a blow to the temple from the edge of the
step, and it was a blow, he felt, that he could just as easily
have done without this evening. He lay there gasping for a
second or two, then at last rolled over heavily, clasping one
hand to his forehead, the other to his nose, and looked up at
the great bird in apprehension, reflecting bitterly on the
conditions under which he was expected to work.
When it became clear to him that he appeared for the
moment to have nothing to fear from the eagle, who was merely
regarding him with a kind of quizzical, blinking doubt, he sat
up, and then slowly dragged himself back to his feet and wiped
and smaacked some of the dirt off his coat. Then he hunted
through his pockets for his keys and unlocked the front door,
which seemed a little loose. He waited to see what the eagle
would do next.
With a slight rustle of its wings it hopped over the
lintel and into his hall. It looked around itself, and seemed
to regard what it saw with a little distaste. Dirk didn't know
what it was that eagles expected of people's hallways, but had
to admit to himself that it wasn't only the eagle which reacted
like that. The disorder was not that great, but there was a
grimness to it which tended to cast a pall over visitors, and
the eagle was clearly not immune to this effect.
Dirk picked up a large flat envelope lying on his doormat,
looked inside it to check that it was what he had been
expecting, then noticed that a picture was missing from the
wall. It wasn't a particularly wonderful picture, merely a
small Japanese print that he had found in Camden Passage and
quite liked, but the point was that it was missing. The hook on
the wall was empty. There was a chair missing as well, he
realised.
The possible significance of this suddenly struck him, and
he hurried through to the kitchen. Many of his assorted kitchen
implements had clearly gone. The rack of largely unused
Sabatier knives, the food processor and his radio cassette
player had all vanished, but he did, however, have a new
fridge. It had obviously been delivered by Nobby Paxton's
felonious thugs and he would just have to make the usual little
list.
Still, he had a new fridge and that was a considerable
load off his mind. Already the whole atmosphere in the kitchen
seemed easier. The tension had lifted. There was a new sense of
lightness and springiness in the air which had even
communicated itself to the pile of old pizza boxes which seemed
now to recline at a jaunty rather than an oppressive angle.
Dirk cheerfully threw open the door to the new fridge and
was delighted to find it completely and utterly empty. Its
inner light shone on perfectly clean blue and white walls and
on gleaming chrome shelves. He liked it so much that he
instantly determined to keep it like that. He would put nothing
in it at all. His food would just have to go off in plain view.
Good. He closed it again.
A screech and a flap behind him reminded him that he was
entertaining a visiting eagle. He turned to find it glaring at
him from on top of the kitchen table.
Now that he was getting a little more accustomed to it,
and had not actually been viciously attacked as he had
suspected he might be, it seemed a little less fearsome than it
had at first. It was still a serious amount of eagle, but
perhaps an eagle was a slightly more manageable proposition
than he had originally supposed. He relaxed a little and took
off his hat, pulled off his coat, and threw them on to a chair.
The eagle seemed at this juncture to sense that Dirk might
be getting the wrong idea about it and flexed one of its claws
at him. With sudden alarm Dirk saw that it did indeed have
something that closely resembled congealed blood on the talons.
He backed away from it hurriedly. The eagle then rose up to its
full height on its talons and began to spread its great wings
out, wider and wider, beating them very slowly and leaning
forward so as to keep its balance. Dirk did the only thing he
could think to do under the cincumstances and bolted from the
room, slamming the door behind him and jamming the hall table
up against it.
A terrible cacophony of screeching and scratching and
buffeting arose instantly from behind it. Dirk sat leaning back
against the table, panting and trying to catch his breath, and
then after a while began to get a worrying feeling about what
the bird was up to now.
It seemed to him that the eagle was actually dive-bombing
itself against the door. Every few seconds the pattern would
repeat itself - first a great beating of wings, then a rush,
then a terrible cracking thud. Dirk didn't think it would get
through the door, but was alarmed that it might beat itself to
death trying. The creature seemed to be quite frantic about
something, but what, Dirk could not even begin to imagine. He
tried to calm himself down and think clearly, to work out what
he should do next.
He should phone Kate and make certain she was all right.
Whoosh, thud!
He should finally open up the envelope he had been carrying
with him all day and examine its contents. Whoosh,
thud!

For that he would need a sharp knife. Whoosh, thud!
Three rather awkward thoughts then struck him in fairly quick
succession.
Whoosh, thud!
First, the only sharp knives in the place, assuming Nobby's
removal people had left him with any at all, were in the
kitchen. Whoosh, thud!
That didn't matter so much in itself, because he could
probably find something in the house that would do. Whoosh,
thud!

The second thought was that the actual envelope itself was in
the pocket of his coat which he had left lying over the back of
a chair in the kitchen. Whoosh, thud!
The third thought was very similar to the second and had to
do with the location of the piece of paper with Kate's
telephone number on it. Whoosh, thud!
Oh God. Whoosh, thud!
Dirk began to feel very, very tired at the way the day was
working out. He was deeply worried by the sense of impending
calamity, but was still by no means able to divine what lay at
the root of it. Whoosh, thud!
Well, he knew what he had to do now... Whoosh, thud!
... so there was no point in not getting on with it. He
quietly pulled the table away from the door. Whoosh -
He ducked and yanked the door open, passing smoothly under
the eagle as it hurtled out into the hallway and hit the
opposite wall. He slammed the door closed behind him from
inside the kitchen, pulled his coat off the chair and jammed
the chair back up under the handle. Whoosh, thud!
The damage done to the door on this side was both
considerable and impressive, and Dirk began seriously to worry
about what this behaviour said about the bird's state of mind,
or what the bird's state of mind might become if it maintained
this behaviour for very much longer. Whoosh...
scratch...

The same thought seemed to have occurred to the bird at that
moment, and after a brief flurry of screeching and of
scratching at the door with its talons it lapsed into a grumpy
and defeated silence, which after it had been going on for
about a minute became almost as disturbing as the previous
batterings.
Dirk wondered what it was up to.
He approached the door cautiously and very, very quietly
moved the chair back a little so that he could see through the
keyhole. He squatted down and peered through it. At first it
seemed to him that he could see nothing through it, that it
must be blocked by something. Then, a slight flicker and glint
close up on the other side suddenly revealed the startling
truth, which was that the eagle also had an eye up at the
keyhole and was busy looking back at him. Dirk almost toppled
backwards with the shock of the realisation, and backed away
from the door with a sense of slight horror and revulsion.
This was extremely intelligent behaviour for an eagle
wasn't it? Was it? How could he find out? He couldn't think of
any ornithological experts to phone. All his reference books
were piled up in other rooms of the house, and he didn't think
he'd be able to keep on pulling off the same stunt with
impunity, certainly not when he was dealing with an eagle which
had managed to figure out what keyholes were for.
He retrealed to the kitchen sink and found some kitchen
towel. He folded it into a wad, soaked it, and dabbed it first
on his bleeding temple, which was swelling up nicely, and then
on his nose which was still very tender, and had been a
considerable size for most of the day now. Maybe the eagle was
an eagle of delicate sensibilities and had reacted badly to the
sight of Dirk's face in its current, much abused, state and had
simply lost its mind. Dirk sighed and sat down.
Kate's telephone, which was the next thing he turned his
attention to, was answered by a machine when he tried to ring
it. Her voice told him, very sweetly, that he was welcome to
leave a message after the beep, but warned that she hardly ever
listened to them and that it was much better to talk to her
directly, only he couldn't because she wasn't in, so he'd best
try again.
Thank you very much, he thought, and put the phone down.
He realised that the truth of the matter was this: he had
spent the day putting off opening the envelope because of what
he was worried about finding in it. It wasn't that the idea was
frightening, though indeed it was frightening that a man should
sell his soul to a green-eyed man with a scythe, which is what
circumstances were trying very hard to suggest had happened. It
was just that it was extremely depressing that he should sell
it to a green-eyed man with a scythe in exchange for a share in
the royalties of a hit record.
That was what it looked like on the face of it. Wasn't it?
Dirk picked up the other envelope, the one which had been
waiting for him on his doormat, delivered there by courier from
a large London bookshop where Dirk had an account. He pulled
out the contents, which were a copy of the sheet music of
Hot Pototo, written by Colin Paignton, Phil
Mulville and Geoff Anstey.
The lyrics were, well, straightforward. They provided a
basic repetitive bit of funk rhythm and a simple sense of
menace and cheerful callousness which had caught the mood of
last summer. They went:

Hot Potato,
Don't pick it up, pick it up, pick it up.
Quick, pass it on, poss it on, poss it on.
You don't want to get caught, get caught, get
caught.

Drop it on someone. Who ? Who ? Anybody.
You better not have it when the big one comes.
I said you better not have it when the big one
comes.

It's a Hot Potato.

And so on. The repeated phrases got tossed back and
forward between the two members of the band, the drum machine
got heavier and heavier, and there had been a dance video.
Was that all it was going to be? Big deal. A nice house in
Lupton Street with polyurethaned floors and a broken marriage?
Things had certainly come down a long way since the great
days of Faust and Mephistopheles, when a man could gain all the
knowledge of the universe, achieve all the ambitions of his
mind and all the pleasures of the flesh for the price of his
soul. Now it was a few record royalties, a few pieces of trendy
furniture, a trinket to stick on your bathroom wall and, whap,
your head comes off.
So what exactly was the deal? What was the Potato
contract? Who was getting what and why?
Dirk rummaged through a drawer for the breadknife, sat
down once more, took the envelope from his coat pocket and
ripped through the congealed strata of Sellotape which held the
end of it together.
Out fell a thick bundle of papers.

Chapter 22

At exactly the moment that the telephone rang, the door to
Kate's sitting-room opened. The Thunder God attempted to stomp
in through it, but in fact he wafted. He had clearly soaked
himself very thoroughly in the stuff Kate had thrown into the
bath, then redressed, and torn op a nightgown of Kate's to bind
his forearm with. He casually tossed a handful of softened oak
shards away into the comer of the room. Kate decided for the
moment to ignore both the deliberate provocations and the
telephone. The former she could deal with and the latter she
had a machine for dealing with.
"I've been reading about you," she challenged the Thunder
God. "Where's your beard?"
He took the book, a one volume encyclopaedia, from her
hands and glanced at it before tossing it aside contemptuously.
"Ha," he said, "I shaved it off. When I was in Wales." He
scowled at the memory.
"What were you doing in Wales for heaven's sake?"
"Counting the stones," he said with a shrug, and went to
stare out of the window.
There was a huge, moping anxiety in his bearing. It
suddenly occurred to Kate with a spasm of something not
entinely unlike fear, that sometimes when people got like that,
it was because they had picked up their mood from the weather.
With a Thunder God it presumably worked the other way round.
The sky ootside certainly had a restless and disgruntled look.
Her reactions suddenly started to become very confused.
"Excuse me if this sounds like a stupid question," said
Kate, "but I'm a little at sea here. I'm not used to spending
the evening with someone who's got a whole day named after
them. What stones were you counting in Wales?"
"All of them," said Thor in a low growl. "All of them
between this size... " he held the tip of his forefinger and
thumb about a quarter of an inch apart, "...and this size." He
held his two hands about a yard apart, and then put them down
again.
Kate stared at him blankly.
"Well... how many were thene?" she asked. It seemed only
polite to ask.
He rounded on her angrily.
"Count them yourself if you want to know!" he shouted.
"What's the point in my spending years and years and years
counting them, so that I'm the only person who knows, and who
will ever know, if I just go and tell somebody else? Well?"
He turned back to the window.
"Anyway," he said, "I've been worried about it. I think I
may have lost count somewhere in Mid-Glamorgan. But I'm not,"
he shouted, "going to do it again!"
"Well, why on earth would you do such an extraordinary
thing in the first place?"
"It was a burden placed on me by my father. A punishment.
A penance." He glowered.
"Your father?" said Kate. "Do you mean Odin?"
"The All-Father," said Thor. "Father of the Gods of
Asgard."
"And you're saying he's alive?"
Thor turned to look at her as if she was stupid.
"We are immortals," he said, simply.
Downstairs, Neil chose that moment to conclude his
thunderous performance on the bass, and the house seemed to
sing in its aftermath with an eerie silence.
"Immortals are what you wanted," said Thor in a low, quiet
voice. "Immortals are what you got. It is a little hard on us.
You wanted us to be for ever, so we are for ever. Then you
forget about us. But still we are for ever. Now at last, many
are dead, many dying," he then added in a quiet voice, "but it
takes a special effort."
"I can't even begin to understand what you're talking
about," said Kate, "you say that I, we - "
"You can begin to understand," said Thor, angrily,
"which is why I have come to you. Do you know that most people
hardly see me? Hardly notice me at all? It is not that we are
hidden. We are here. We move among you. My people. Your gods.
You gave birth to us. You made us be what'you would not dare to
be yourselves. Yet you will not acknowledge us. If I walk along
one of your streets in this... world you have made for
yourselves without us, then barely an eye will once flicker in
my direction."
"Is this when you're wearing the helmet?"
"Especially when I'm wearing the helmet!"
"Well- "
"You make fun of me!" roared Thor.
"You make it very easy for a girl," said Kate. "I don't
know what - "
Suddenly the room seemed to quake and then to catch its
breath. All of Kate's insides wobbled violently and then held
very still. In the sudden horrible silence, a blue china table
lamp slowly toppled off the table, hit the floor, and crawled
off to a dark corner of the room where it sat in a worried
little defensive huddle.
Kate stared at it and tried to be calm about it. She felt
as if cold, soft jelly was trickling down her skin.
"Did you do that?" she said shakily.
Thor was looking livid and confused. He muttered, "Do not
make me angry with you. You were very lucky." He looked away.
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that I wish you to come with me."
"What? What about that?" She pointed at the small
befuddled kitten under the table which had so recently and so
confusingly been a blue china table lamp.
"There's nothing I can do for it."
Kate was suddenly so tired and confused and frightened
that she found she was nearly in tears. She stood biting her
lip and trying to be as angry as she could.
"Oh yeah?" she said. "I thought you were meant to be a
god. I hope you haven't got into my home under false pretences,
I..." She stumbled to a halt, and then resumed in a different
tone of voice.
"Do you mean," she said, in a small voice, "that you have
been here, in the world, all this time?"
"Here, and in Asgard," said Thor.
"Asgard," said Kate. "The home of the gods?"
Thor was silent. It was a grim silence that seemed to be
full of something that bothered him deeply.
"Where is Asgard?" demanded Kate.
Again Thor did not speak. He was a man of very few words
and enormously long pauses. When at last he did answer, it
wasn't at all clear whether he had been thinking all that time
or just standing there.
"Asgard is also here," he said. "All worlds are here."
He drew out from under his furs his great hammer and
studied its head deeply and with an odd curiosity, as if
something about it was very puzzling. Kate wondered where she
found such a gesture familiar from. She found that it
instinctively made her want to duck. She stepped back very
slightly and was watchful.
When he looked up again, there was an altogether new focus
and energy in his eyes, as if he was gathering himself up to
hurl himself at something. "
"Tonight I must be in Asgard," he said. "I must confront
my father Odin in the great hall of Valhalla and bring him to
account for what he has done."
"You mean, for making you count Welsh pebbles?"
"No!" said Thor. "For making the Welsh pebbles not worth
counting!"
Kate shook her head in exasperation. "I simply don't know
what to make of you at all," she said. "I think I'm just too
tired. Come back tomorrow. Explain it all in the morning."
"No," said Thor. "You must see Asgard yourself, and then
you will understand. You must see it tonight." He gripped her
by the arm.
"I don't want to go to Asgard," she insisted. "I don't go
to mythical places with strange men. You go. Call me up and
tell me how it went in the morning. Give him hell about the
pebbles."
She wrested her arm from his grip. It was very, very clear
to her that she only did this with his permission.
"Now please, go, and let me sleep!" She glared at him.
At that moment the house seemed to erupt as Neil launched
into a thumping bass rendition of Siegfried's Rheinfahrt from
Act 1 of Gжtterdдmmerung, just to prove it could be
done. The walls shook, the windows rattled. From under the
table the sound of the table lamp mewing pathetically could
just be heard.
Kate tried to maintain her furious glare, but it simply
couldn't be kept up for very long in the circumstances.
"OK," she said at last, "how do we get to this place?"
"There are as many ways as there are tiny pieces."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Tiny things." He held up his thumb and forefinger again
to indicate something very small. "Molecules," he added,
seeming to be uncomfortable with the word. "But first let us
leave here."
"Will I need a coat in Asgard?"
"As you wish."
"Well, I'll take one anyway. Wait a minute."
She decided that the best way to deal with the astonishing
rigmarole which currently constituted her life was to be
businesslike about it. She found her coat, brushed her hair,
left a new message on her telephone answering machine and put a
saucer of milk firmly under the table.
"Right," she said, and led the way out of the flat,
locking it carefully after them, and making shushing noises as
they passed Neil's door. For all the uproar he was currently
making he was almost certainly listening out for the slightest
sound, and would be out in a moment if he heard them going by
to complain about the Coca-Cola machine, the lateness of the
hour, man's inhumanity to man, the weather, the noise, and the
colour of Kate's coat, which was a shade of blue that Neil for
some reason disapproved of most particularly. They stole past
successfully and closed the front door behind them with the
merest click.

Chapter 23

The sheets which tumbled out on to Dirk's kitchen table
were made of thick heavy paper, folded together, and had
obviously been much handled.
He sorted them out, one by one, separating them from each
other, smoothing them out with the flat of his hand and laying
them out neatly in rows on the kitchen table, clearing a space,
as it became necessary, among the old newspapers, ashtrays and
dirty cereal bowls which Elena the cleaner always left exactly
where they were, claiming, when challenged on this, that she
thought he had put them there specially.
He pored over the papers for several minutes, moving from
one to another, comparing them with each other, studying them
carefully, page by page, paragraph by paragraph, line by line.
He couldn't understand a word of them.
It should have occurred to him, he realised, that the
greeneyed, hairy, scythe-waving giant might differ from him
not only in general appearance and personal habits, but also in
such matters as the alphabet he favoured.
He sat back in his seat, disgruntled and thwarted, and
reached for a cigarette, but the packet in his coat was now
empty. He picked up a pencil and tapped it in a cigarette-like
way, but it wasn't able to produce the same effect.
After a minute or two he became acutely conscious of the
fact that he was probably still being watched through the
keyhole by the eagle and he found that this made it impossibly
hard to concentrate on the problem before him, particularly
without a cigarette. He scowled to himself. He knew there was
still a packet upstairs by his bed, but he didn't think he
could handle the sheer ornithology involved in going to get it.
He tried to stare at the papers for a little longer. The
writing, apart from being written in some kind of small, crabby
and indecipherable runic script, was mostly hunched up towards
the left-hand side of the paper as if swept there by a tide.
The righthand side was largely clear except for an occasionai
group of characters which were lined up underneath each other.
All of it, except for a slight sense of undefinable familiarity
about the layout, was completely meaningless to Dirk.
He turned his attention back to the envelope instead and
tried once more to examine some of the names which had been so
heavily crossed out.
Howard Bell, the incredibly wealthy bestselling novelist
who wrote bad books which sold by the warehouse-load despite -
or perhaps because of - the fact that nobody read them.
Dennis Hutch, record company magnate. Now that he had a
context for the name, Dirk knew it perfeetly well. The Aries
Rising Record Group which had been founded on Sixties ideals,
or at least on what passed for ideals in the Sixties, grown in
the Seventies and then embraced the materialism of the Eighties
without missing a beat, was now a massive entertainment
conglomerate on both sides of the Atlantic. Dennis Hutch had
stepped up into the top seat when its founder had died of a
lethal overdose of brick wall, taken while under the influence
of a Ferrari and a bottle of tequila. ARRGH! was also the
record label on which Hot Potato had been released.
Stan Dubcek, senior partner in the advertising company
with the silly name which now owned most of the British and
American advertising companies which had not had names which
were quite as silly, and had therefore been swallowed whole.
And here, suddenly, was another name that was instantly
recognisable, now that Dirk was attuned to the sort of names he
should be looking for. Roderick Mercer, the world's greatest
publisher of the world's sleaziest newspapers. Dirk hadn't at
first spotted the name with the unfamiliar "...erick" in place
after the "Rod". Well, well, well. . .
Now here were people, thought Dirk suddenly, who had
really got something. Certainly they had got rather more than a
nice little house in Lupton Road with some dried flowers lying
around the place. They also had the great advantage of having
heads on their shoulders as well, unless Dirk had missed
something new and dramatic on the news. What did that all mean?
What was this contract? How come everybody whose hands it had
been through had been so astoundingly successful except for
one, Geoffrey Anstey? Everybody whose hands it had passed
through had benefited from it except for the one who had it
last. Who had still got it.
It was a hot potato. .
You better not have it when the big one comes.
The notion suddenly formed in Dirk's mind that it might have
been Geoffrey Anstey himself who had overheard a conversation
about a hot potato, about getting rid of it, passing it on. If
he remembered correctly the interview he had read with Pain, he
didn't say that he himself had overheard the conversation.
You better not have it when the big one comes.
The notion was a horrible one and ran on like this:
Geoffrey Anstey had been pathetically naоve. He had
overheard this conversation, between - who? Dirk picked up the
envelope and ran over the list of names - and had thought that
it had a good dance rhythm. He had not for a moment realised
that what he was listening to was a conversation that would
result in his own hideous death. He had got a hit record out of
it, and when the real hot potato was actually handed to him he
had picked it up.
Don't pick it up, pick it up, pick it up.
And instead of taking the advice he had recorded in thc
words of the song...
Quick, pass it on, pass it on, pass it on.
... he had stuck it behind the gold record award on his
bathroom wall.
You better not have it when the big one comes.
Dirk frowned and took a long, slow thoughtful drag on his
pencil.
This was ridiculous.
He had to got some cigarettes if he was going to think
this through with any intellectual rigour. He pulled on his
coat, stuffed his hat on his head and made for the window.
The window hadn't been opened for - well, certainly not
during his ownership of the house, and it struggled and
screamed at the sudden unaccustomed invasion of its space and
independence. Once he had forced it wide enough, Dirk struggled
out on to the windowsill, pulling swathes of leather coat out
with him. From here it was a bit of a jump to the pavement
since there was a lower ground floor to the house with a narrow
flight of steps leading down to it in the front. A line of iron
railings separated these from the pavement, and Dirk had to get
clear over these.
Without hesitating for a moment he made the jump, and it
was in mid-bound that he realised he had not pickcd up his car
keys from the kitchen table where he'd left them.
He considered as he sailed gracelessly through the air
whether or not to execute a wild mid-air twist, make a
desperate grab backwards for the window and hope that he might
just manage to hold on to the sill, but decided on mature
reflection that an error at this point might just conceivably
kill him whereas the walk would probably do him good.
He landed heavily on the far side of the railings, but the
tails of his coat became entangled with them and he had to pull
them off, tearing part of the lining in the process. Once the
ringing shock in his knees had subsided and he had recovered
what little composure the events of the day had left him with,
he realised that it was now well after eleven o'clock and the
pubs would be shut, and he might have a longer walk than he had
bargained for to find some cigarettes.
He considered what to do.
The current outlook and state of mind of tbe eagle was a
major factor to be taken into account here. The only way to get
his car keys now was back through the front door into his
eagleinfested hallway.
Moving with great caution he tip-toed back up the steps to
his front door, squatted down and, hoping that the damn thing
wasn't going to squeak, gently pushed up the flap of the
letterbox and peered through.
In an instant a talon was hooked into the back of his hand
and a great screeching beak slashed at his eye, narrowly
missing it but scratching a great gouge across his much abused
nose.
Dirk howled with pain and lurched backwards, not getting
very far because he still had a talon hooked in his hand. He
lashed out desperately and hit at the talon, which hurt him
considerably, dug the sharp point even further into his flesh
and caused a great, barging flurry on the far side of the door,
each tiniest movement of which tugged heavily in his hand.
He grabbed at the great claw with his free hand and and
tried to tug it back out of himself. It was immensely strong,
and was shaking with the fury of the eagle, which was as
trapped as he was. At last, quivering with pain, he managed to
release himself, and pulled his injured hand back, nursing and
cuddling it with the other.
The eagle pulled its claw back sharply, and Dirk heard it
flapping away back down his hallway, emitting terrible
screeches and cries, its great wings colliding with and
scraping thc walls.
Dirk toyed with the idea of burning the house down, but
once the throbbing in his hand had begun to subside a little he
calmed down and tried, if he could, to see things from the
eagle's point of view.
He couldn't.
He had not the faintest idea how things appeared to eagles
in general, much less to this particular eagle, which seemed to
be a seriously deranged example of the species.
After a minute or so more of nursing his hand,
curiosity-allied to a strong sense that the eagle had definitely
retreated to the far end of the hall and stayed there -
overcame him, and he bent down once more to the letter-box.
This time he used his pencil to push the flap back upwards and
scanned the hallway from a safe position a good few inches
back.
The eagle was clearly in view, perched on the end of the
bannister rail, regarding him with resentment and opprobrium,
which Dirk felt was a little rich coming from a creature which
had only a moment or two ago been busily engaged in trying to
rip his hand off.
Then, once the eagle was certain that it had got Dirk's
attention, it slowly raised itself up on its feet and slowly
shook its great wings out, beating them gently for balance. It
was this gesture that had previously caused Dirk to bolt
prudently from the room. This time, however, he was safely
behind a couple of good solid inches of wood and he stood, or
rather, squatted his ground. The eagle stretched its neck
upwards as well, jabbing its tongue out at the air and cawing
plaintively, which surprised Dirk.
Then he noticed something else rather surprising about the
eagle, which was that its wings had strange, un-eaglelike
markings on them. They were large concentric circles.
The differences of coloration which delineated thc circles
were very slight, and it was only the absolute geometric
regularity of them which made them stand out as clearly as they
did. Dirk had the very clear sense that the eagle was showing
him these circles, and that that was what it had wanted to
attract his attention to all along. Each time the bird had
dived at him, he realised as he thought back, it had then
started on a strange kind of flapping routine which had
involved opening its wings right out. However, each time it had
happened Dirk had been too busily engaged with the business of
turning round and running away to pay this exhibition the
appropriate attention.
"Have you got the money for a cup of tea, mate?"
"Er, yes thank you," said Dirk, "I'm fine." His attention
was fully occupied with the eagle, and he didn't immediately
look round.
"No, I meant can you spare me a bob or two, just for a cup
of tea?"
"What?" This time Dirk looked round, irritably.
"Or just a fag, mate. Got a fag you can spare?"
"No, I was just going to go and get some myself," said
Dirk.
The man on the pavement behind him was a tramp of
indeterminate age. He was standing there, slightly wobbly, with
a look of wild and continuous disappointment bobbing in his
eyes.
Not getting an immediate response from Dirk, the man
dropped his eyes to the ground about a yard in front of him,
and swayed back and forth a little. He was holding his arms
out, slightly open, slightly away from his body, and just
swaying. Then he frowned suddenly at the ground. Then he
frowned at another part of the ground. Then, holding himself
steady while he made quite a major realignment of his head, he
frowned away down the street.
"Have you lost something?" said Dirk.
The man's head swayed back towards him.
"Have I lost something?" he said in querulous
astonishment. "Have I lost something?"
It seemed to be the most astounding question he had ever
heard. He looked away again for a while, and seemed to be
trying to balance the question in the general scale of things.
This involved a fair bit more swaying and a fair few more
frowns. At last he seemed to come up with something that might
do service as some kind of answer.
"The sky?" he said, challenging Dirk to find this a good
enough answer. He looked up towards it, carefully, so as not to
lose his balance. He seemed not to like what he saw in the dim,
orange, street-lit pallor of the clouds, and slowly looked back
down again till he was staring at a point just in front of his
feet.
"The ground?" he said, with evident great dissatisfaction,
and then was struck with a sudden thought.
"Frogs?" he said, wobbling his gaze up to meet Dirk's
rather bewildered one. "I used to like...frogs," he said, and
left his gaze sitting on Dirk as if that was all he had to say,
and the rest was entirely up to Dirk now.
Dirk was completely flummoxed. He longed for the times
when life had been easy, life had been carefree, the great
times he'd had with a mere homicidal eagle, which seemed now to
be such an easygoing and amiable companion. Aerial attack he
could cope with, but not this nameless roaring guilt that came
howling at him out of nowhere.
"What do you want?" he said in a strangled voice.
"Just a fag, mate," said the tramp, "or something for a
cup of tea."
Dirk pressed a pound coin into the man's hand and lunged
off down the street in a panic, passing, twenty yards further
on, a builder's skip from which the shape of his old fridge
loomed at him menacingly.

Chapter 24

As Kate came down the steps from her house she noticed
that the temperature had dropped considerably. The clouds sat
heavily on the land and loured at it. Thor set off briskly in
the direction of the park, and Kate trotted along in his wake.
As he strode along, an extraordinary figure on the streets
of Primrose Hill, Kate could not help but notice that he had
been right. They passed three different people on the way, and
she saw distinctly how their eyes avoided looking at him, even
as they had to make allowance for his great bulk as he passed
them. He was not invisible, far from it. He simply didn't fit.
The park was closed for the night, but Thor leapt quickly
over the spiked railings and then lifted her over in turn as
lightly as if she had been a bunch of flowers.
The grass was damp and mushy, but still worked its magic
on city feet. Kate did what she always did when entering the
park, which was to bob down and put the flats of her hands down
on the ground for a moment. She had never quite worked out why
she did this, and often she would adjust a shoe or pick up a
piece of litter as a pretext for the movement, but all she
really wanted was to feel the grass and the wet earth on her
palms.
The park from this viewpoint was simply a dark shoulder
that rose up before them, obscuring itself. They mounted the
hill and stood on the top of it, looking over the darkness of
the rest of the park to where it shaded off into the hazy light
of the heart of London which lay to the south. Ugly towers and
blocks stuck yobbishly up out of the skyline, dominating the
park, the sky, and the city.
A cold, damp wind moved across the park, flicking at it
from time to time like the tail of a dark and broody horse.
There was an unsettled, edgy quality to it. In fact the night
sky seemed to Kate to be like a train of restless, irritable
horses, their traces flapping and slapping in the wind. It also
seemed to her as if the traces all radiated loosely from a
single centre, and that the centre was very close by her. She
reprimanded herself for absurd suggestibility, but
nevertheless, it still seemed that all the weather was gathered
and circling around them, waiting on them.
Thor once more drew out his hammer, and held it before him
in the thoughtful and abstracted manner she had seen a few
minutes before in her flat. He frowned, and seemed to be
picking tiny invisible pieces of dust off it. It was a little
like a chimpanzee grooming its mate, or - that was it! - the
comparison was extraordinary, but it explained why she had
tensed herself so watchfully when last he had done it. It was
like Jimmy Connors minutely adjusting the strings of his
racquet before preparing to serve.
He looked up sharply once again, drew his arm back, turned
fully once, twice, three times, twisting his heels heavily in
the mud, and then hurled his hammer with astonishing force up
to the heavens.
It vanished almost instantly into the murky haze of the
sky. Damp flashes sparked deep within the clouds, tracking its
path in a long parabola through the night. At the furthest
extent of the parabola it swung down out of the clouds, a
distant tiny pinpoint moving slowly now, gathering and
redirecting its momentum for the return flight. Kate watched,
breathless, as the speck crept behind the dome of St Paul's. It
then seemed almost as if it had halted altogether, hanging
silently and improbably in the air, before gradually beginning
to increase microscopically in size as it accelerated back
towards them.
Then, as it returned, it swung aside in its path, no
longer describing a simple parabola, but following instead a
new path which seemed to lie along the perimeter of a gigantic
Mobius strip which took it round the other side of the Telecom
Tower. Then suddenly it was swinging back in a path directly
towards them, hurtling out of the night with impossible weight
and speed like a piston in a shaft of light. Kate swayed and
nearly dropped in a dead faint out of its path, when Thor
stepped forward and caught it with a grunt.
The jolt of it sent a single heavy shudder down into the
earth, and then the thing was resting quietly in Thor's grip.
His arm quivered slightly and was still.
Kate felt quite dizzy. She didn't know exactly what it was
that had just happened, but she felt pretty damn certain that
it was the sort of experience that her mother would not have
approved of on a first date.
"Is this all part of what we have to do to go to Asgard?"
she said. "Or are you just fooling around?"
"We will go to Asgard...now," he said.
At that moment he raised his hand as if to pluck an apple,
but instead of plucking he made a tiny, sharp turning movement.
The effect was as if he had twisted the entire world through a
billionth part of a billionth part of a degree. Everything
shifted, was for a moment minutely out of focus, and then
snapped back again as a suddenly different world.
This world was a much darker one and colder still.
A bitter, putrid wind blew sharply, and made every breath
gag in the throat. The ground beneath their feet was no longer
the soft muddy grass of the hill, but a foul-smelling, oozing
slush. Darkness lay over all the horizon with a few small
exceptional fires dotted here and there in the distance, and
one great blaze of light about a mile and a half away to the
southeast.
Here, great fantastical towers stabbed at the night; huge
pinnacles and turrets flickered in the firelight that surged
from a thousand windows. It was an edifice that mocked reason,
ridiculed reality and jeered wildly at the night.
"My father's palace," said Thor, "the Great Hall of
Valhalla where we must go."
It was just on the tip of Kate's tongue to say that
something about the place was oddly familiar when the sound of
horses' hooves pounding through the mud came to them on the
wind. At a distance, between where they stood and the Great
Hall of Valhalla, a small number of flickering torches could be
seen jolting towards them.
Thor once more studied the head of his hammer with
interest, brushed it with his forefinger and rubbed it with his
thumb. Then slowly he looked up, again he twisted round once,
then twice and a third time and then hurled the missile into
the sky. This time, however, he continued to hold on to its
shaft with his right hand, while with his left he held Kate's
waist in his grasp.

Chapter 25

Cigarettes clearly intended to make themselves a major
problem for Dirk tonight.
For most of the day, except for when he'd woken up, and
except for again shortly after he'd woken up, and except for
when he had just encountered the revolving head of Geoffrey
Anstey, which was understandable, and also except for when he'd
been in the pub with Kate, he had had absolutely no cigarettes
at all.
Not one. They were out of his life, foresworn utterly. He
didn't need them. He could do without them. They merely nagged
at him like mad and made his life a living hell, but he decided
he could handle that.
Now, however, just when he had suddenly decided, coolly,
rationally, as a clear, straightforward decision rather than
merely a feeble surrender to craving, that he would, after all,
have a cigarette, could he find one? He could not.
The pubs by this stage of the night were well closed. The
late night corner shop obviously meant something different by
"late night" than Dirk did, and though Dirk was certain that he
could convince the proprietor of the rightness of his case
through sheer linguistic and syllogistic bravado, the wretched
man wasn't there to undergo it.
A mile away there was a 24-hour filling station, but it
turned out just to have sustained an armed robbery. The plate
glass was shattered and crazed round a tiny hole, police were
swarming over the place. The attendant was apparently not badly
injured, but he was still losing blood from a wound in his arm,
having hysterics and being treated for shock, and no one would
sell Dirk any cigarettes. They simply weren't in the mood.
"You could buy cigarettes in the blitz," protested Dirk.
"People took a pride in it. Even with the bombs falling and the
whole city ablaze you could still get served. Some poor fellow,
just lost two daughters and a leg, would still say `Plain or
filter tipped?' if you asked him."
"I expect you would, too," muttered a white-faced young
policeman.
"It was the spirit of the age," said Dirk.
"Bug off," said the policeman.
And that, thought Dirk to himself, was the spirit of this.
He retreated, miffed, and decided to prowl the streets with his
hands in his pockets for a while.
Camden Passage. Antique clocks. Antique clothes. No
cigarettes.
Upper Street. Antique buildings being ripped apart. No
sign of cigarette shops being put up in their place.
Chapel Market, desolate at night. Wet litter wildly
flapping. Cardboard boxes, egg boxes, paper bags and cigarette
packets - empty ones.
Pentonville Road. Grim concrete monoliths, eyeing the new
spaces in Upper Street where they hoped to spawn their horrid
progeny.
King's Cross station. They must have cigarettes, for
heaven's sake. Dirk hurried on down towards it.
The old frontage to the station reared up above the area,
a great yellow brick wall with a clock tower and two huge
arches fronting the two great train sheds behind. In front of
this lay the one-storey modern concourse which was already far
shabbier than the building, a hundred years its senior, which
it obscured and generally messed up. Dirk imagined that when
the designs for the modern concourse had been drawn up the
architects had explained that it entered into an exciting and
challenging dialogue with the older building.
King's Cross is an area where terrible things happen to
people, to buildings, to cars, to trains, usually while you
wait, and if you weren't careful you could easily end up
involved in a piece of exciting and challenging dialogue
yourself. You could have a cheap car radio fitted while you
waited, and if you turned your back for a couple of minutes, it
would be removed while you waited as well. Other things you
could have removed while you waited were your wallet, your
stomach lining, your mind and your will to live. The muggers
and pushers and pimps and hamburger salesmen, in no particular
order, could arrange all these things for you.
But could they arrange a packet of cigarettes, thought
Dirk, with a mounting sense of tension. He crossed York Way,
declined a couple of surprising offers on the grounds that they
did not involve cigarettes in any immediately obvious way,
hurried past the closed bookshop and in through the main
concourse doors, away from the life of the street and into the
safer domain of British Rail.
He looked around him.
Here things seemed rather strange and he wondered why, but
he only wondered this very briefly because he was also
wondering if there was anywhere open selling cigarettes and
there wasn't.
He sagged forlornly. It seemed to him that he had been
playing catch-up with the world all day. The morning had
started in about as disastrous a way as it was possible for a
morning to start, and he had never managed to get a proper grip
on it since. He felt like somebody trying to ride a bolting
horse, with one foot in a stirrup and the other one still
bounding along hopefully on the ground behind. And now even as
simple a thing as a cigarette was proving to be beyond his
ability to get hold of.
He sighed and found himself a seat, or at least, room on a
bench.
This was not an immediately easy thing to do. The station
was more crowded than he had expected to find it at - what was
it? he looked up at the clock - one o'clock in the morning.
What in the name of God was he doing on King's Cross station at
one o'clock in the morning, with no cigarette and no home that
he could reasonably expect to get into without being hacked to
death by a homicidal bird?
He decided to feel sorry for himself. That would pass the
time. He looked around himself, and after a while the impulse
to feel sorry for himself gradually subsided as he began to
take in his surroundings.
What was strange about it was seeing such an immediately
familiar place looking so unfamiliar. There was the ticket
office, still open for ticket sales, but looking sombre and
beleaguered and wishing it was closed.
There was the W.H.Smith, closed for the night. No one
would be needing any further newspapers or magazines tonight,
except for purposes of accommodation, and old ones would do
just as well for sleeping under.
The pimps and hookers, drug-pushers and hamburger salesmen
were all outside in the streets and in the hamburger bars. If
you wanted quick sex or a dirty fix or, God help you, a
hamburger, that was where you went to get it.
Here were the people that nobody wanted anything from at
all. This was where they gathered for shelter until they were
periodically shooed out. There was something people wanted from
them, in fact - their absence. That was in hot demand, but not
easily supplied. Everybody has to be somewhere.
Dirk looked from one to another of the men and women
shuffling round or sitting hunched in seats or struggling to
try and sleep across benches that were specifically designed to
prevent them from doing exactly that.
"Got a fag, mate?"
"What? No, I'm sorry. No, I haven't got one," replied
Dirk, awkwardly patting his coat pockets in embarrassment, as
if to suggest the making of a search which he knew would be
fruitless. He was startled to be summoned out of his reverie
like this.
"Here you are, then." The old man offered him a beat-up
one from a beat-up packet.
"What? Oh. Oh - thanks. Thank you " Momentarily taken
aback by the offer, Dirk nevertheless accepted the cigarette
gratefully, and took a light from the tip of the cigarette the
old man was smoking himself.
"What you come hene for then?" asked the old man - not
challenging, just curious.
Dirk tried to look at him without making it seem as if he
was looking him up and down. The man was wildly bereft of
teeth, had startled and matted hair, and his old clothes were
well mulched down around him, but the eyes which sagged out of
his face were fairly calm. He wasn't expecting anything worse
than he could deal with to happen to him.
"Well, just this in fact," said Dirt, twiddling the
cigarette. "Thanks. Couldn't find one anywhere."
"Oh ah," said the old man.
"Got this mad bird at home," said Dirk. "Kept attacking
me."
"Oh ah," said the man, nodding resignedly.
"I mean an actual bird," said Dirk, "an eagle."
"Oh ah."
"With great wings."
"Oh ah."
"Got hold of me with one of its talons through the
letter-box."
"Oh ah."
Dirk wondered if it was worth pursuing the conversation
much further. He lapsed into silence and looked around.
"You're lucky it didn't slash at you with its beak as
well," said the old man after a while. "An eagle will do that
when roused."
"It did!" said Dirk. "It did! Look, right here on my nose.
That was through the letter-box as well. You'd scarcely believe
it! Talk about grip! Talk about reach! Look at what it did to
my hand!"
He held it out for sympathy. The old man gave it an
appraising look.
"Oh ah," he said at last, and retreated into his own
thoughts.
Dirk drew his injured hand back.
"Know a lot about eagles, then, do you?"
The man didn't answer, but seemed instead to retreat still
further.
"Lot of people here tonight," Dirk ventured again, after a
while.
The man shrugged. He took a long drag on his cigarette,
half closing his eyes against the smoke.
"Is it always like this? I mean, are there always so many
people here at night?"
The man merely looked down, slowly releasing the smoke
from his mouth and nostrils.
Yet again, Dirk looked around. A man a few feet away, not
so old-looking as Dirk's companion but wildly deranged in his
demeanour, had sat nodding hectically over a bottle of cooking
brandy all this time. He slowly stopped his nodding, screwed
with difficulty a cap on to the bottle, and slipped it into the
pocket of his ragged old coat. An old fat woman who had been
fitfully browsing through the bulging black bin liner of her
possessions began to twist the top of it together and fold it.
"You'd almost think that something was about to happen,"
said Dirk.
"Oh ah," said his companion. He put his hands on his
knees, bent forward and raised himself painfully to his feet.
Though he was bent and slow, and though his clothes were
dirt-ridden and tattered, there was some little power and
authority there in his bearing.
The air which he unsettted as he stood, which flowed out
from the folds of his skin and ctothes, was richly pungent even
to Dirk's numbed nostrils. It was a smell that never stopped
coming at you - just as Dirk thought it must have peaked, so it
struck on upwards with renewed frenzy till Dirk thought that
his very brain would vaporise.
He tried not to choke, indeed he tried to smile
courteously without allowing his eyes to run as the man turned
to him and said, "Infuse some blossom of the bitter orange. Add
some sprinklings of sage while it is still warm. This is very
good for eagle wounds. There are those who will add apricot and
almond oil and even, the heavens defend us, sedra. But then
there are always those that will overdo things. And sometimes
we have need of them. Oh ah."
With that he turned away once more and joined the growing
stream of pathetic, hunched and abused bodies that were heading
for the front exit from the station. In all about two, maybe
three dozen were leaving. Each seemed to be leaving separatety,
each for his or her entirely independent reasons, and not
following too fast the one upon the other, and yet it was not
hard to tell, for anyone who cared to watch these people that
no one cared to watch or see, that they were leaving together
and in a stream.
Dirk carefulty nursed his cigarette for a minute or so and
watched them intently as one by one they left. Once he was
certain that there were no more to go, and that the last two or
three of them were at the door, he dropped the cigarette and
ground it out with his heel. Then he noticed that the old man
had left behind his crumpled cigarette packet. Dirk looked
inside and saw that there were still two bedraggled cigarettes
left. He pocketed it, stood up, and quietly followed at a
distance that he thought was properly respectful.
Outside on the Euston Road the night air was grumbling and
unsettled. He loitered idly by the doorway, watching which way
they went - to the west. He took one of the cigarettes out and
lit it and then idled off westwards himself, around the taxi
rank and towards St Pancras Street.
On the west side of St Pancras Street, just a few yards
north of the Euston Road, a flight of steps leads up to the
forecourt of the old Midland Grand Hotel, the huge, dark gothic
fantasy of a building which stands, empty and desolate, across
the front of St Pancras railway station.
Over the top of the steps, picked out in gold letters on
wrought-iron-work, stands the name of the station. Taking his
time, Dirk followed the last of the band of old tramps and
derelicts up these steps, which emerged just to the side of a
small, squat, brick building which was used as a car-park. To
the right, the great dark hulk of the old hotel spread off into
the night, its roofline a vast assortment of wild turrets,
gnarled spires and pinnacles which seemed to prod at and goad
the night sky.
High in the dim darkness, silent stone figures stood guard
behind long shields, grouped around pilasters behind
wroughtiron railings. Carved dragons crouched gaping at the sky as
Dirk Gently, in his flapping leather coat, approached the great
iron portals which led to the hotel, and to the great vaulted
train shed of St Pancras station. Stone figures of winged dogs
crouched down from the top of pillars.
Here, in the bridged area between the hotel entrance and
the station booking hall, was parked a large unmarked grey
Mercedes van. A quick glance at the front of it was enough to
tell Dirk that it was the same one which had nearly forced him
off the road several hours earlier in the Cotswolds.
Dirk walked into the booking hall, a large space with
great panelled walls along which were spaced fat marble columns
in the form of tonch holders.
At this time of night the ticket office was closed -
trains do not run all night from St Pancras - and beyond it the
vast chamber of the station itself, the great Victorian train
shed, was shrouded in darkness and shadow.
Dirk stood quietly secluded in the entrance to the booking
hall and watched as the old tramps and bag tadies, who had
entered the station by the main entrance from the forecourt,
mingled together in the dimness. There were now many more than
two dozen of them, perhaps as many as a hundred, and there
seemed to be about them an air of repressed excitement and
tension.
As they moved about it seemed to Dirk after a while that,
though he had been surprised at how many of them there had been
when he first arrived, there seemed now to be fewer and fewer
of them. He peered into the gloom trying to make out what was
happening. He detached himself from his seclusion in the
entrance to the booking hall and entered the main vault, but
kept himself nevertheless as close to the side wall as possible
as he ventured in towards them.
There were definitely fewer still of them now, a mere
handful left. He had a distinct sense of people slipping away
into the shadows and not re-emerging from them.
He frowned at them.
The shadows were deep but they weren't that deep. He began
to hurry forward, and quickly threw all caution aside to reach
the small remaining group. But by the time he reached the
centre of the concourse where they had been gathered there were
none remaining at all and he was left whirling round in
confusion in the middle of the great, dark, empty railway
station.

Chapter 26

The only thing which prevented Kate screaming was the
sheer pressure of air rushing into her lungs as she hurtled
into the sky.
When, a few seconds later, the blinding acceleration eased
a little, she found she was gulping and choking, her eyes were
stinging and streaming to the extent that she could hardly see,
and there was hardly a muscle in her body which wasn't
gibbering with shock as waves of air pummelled past her,
tearing at her hair and clothes and making her knees, knuckles
and teeth batter at each other.
She had to struggle with herself to suppress her urge to
struggle. On the one hand she absolutely certainly did not want
to be let go of. Insofar as she had any understanding at all of
what was happening to her she knew that she did not want to be
let go of. On the other hand the physical shock of it was
facing some stiff competition from her sheer affronted rage at
being suddenly hauled into the sky without warning. The result
of this was that she struggled rather feebly and was angry at
herself for doing so. She ended up clinging to Thor's arm in
the most abject and undignified way.
The night was dark, and the blessing of this, she
supposed, was that she could not see the ground. The lights she
had seen dotted here and there in the distance now swung
sickeningly away beneath her, but her instincts would not
identify them as representing ground. Already the flickering
beacons which shone from the insanely turreted building she had
glimpsed seconds before this outrage occurred were swaying away
behind her now at an increasing distance.
They were still ascending.
She could not struggle, she could not speak. She could
probably, if she tried, bite the stupid brute's arm, but she
contented herself with the idea of this rather than the actual
deed.
The air was bad and rasped in her lungs. Her nose and eyes
were streaming, and this made it impossible for her to look
forward. When she did try it, just once, she caught a momentary
blurred glimpse of the head of the hammer streaking out through
the dark air of them, of Thor's arm grasping its stunted handle
and being pulled forward by it. His other arm was gripped
around her waist. The strength of him defied her imagination
but did not make her any the less angry.
She got the feeling that they were now skimming along just
beneath the clouds. Every now and then they would be buffeted
by damp clamminess, and breathing would become yet harder and
more noxious. The wet air tasted bitter, and deadly cold, and
her streaming wet hair lashed and slammed about her face.
She decided that the cold was definitely going to kill
her, and after a while was convinced that she was beginning to
lose consciousness. In fact she realised she was actually
trying to lose consciousness but she couldn't. Time slipped
into a greyness though, and she was less aware of how much of
it was passing.
At last she began to sense that they were slowing and that
they were beginning to curve back downwards. This precipitated
fresh waves of nausea and disorientation in her, and she felt
that her stomach was being slowly turned through a mangle.
The air was, if anything, getting worse. It smelled worse,
tasted more acrid and seemed to be getting a great deal more
turbulent. They were definitely slowing now, and the going was
becoming more and more difficult. The hammer was clearly
pointing downwards now, and finding its way along rather than
surging ahead.
Down still further they went, battling through the
thickening clouds that swirled round them till it seemed that
they must now reach all the way down to the ground.
Their speed had dropped to the point where Kate felt able
to look ahead now, though the acridity of the air was such that
she was only able to manage a very brief glance. In the moment
that she glanced, Thor released the hammer. She couldn't
believe it. He released it only for a fraction of a second,
just to change his grip on the thing, so that they were now
hanging from the shaft as it flew slowly forward, rather than
being pulled along by it. As he redistributed his weight into
this new posture he hoisted Kate firmly upwards as if pulling
up a sock. Down they went, and down further and further.
There was now a roaring crashing sound borne in on them by
the wind from up ahead, and suddenly Thor was running, leaping
over rocky, sandy scrubland, dancing through the knotted
tussocks, and finally pounding and drumming his feet to a halt.
They stood still at last, swaying, but the ground on which
they stood was solid.
Kate breathed for a few seconds, bending over to catch her
breath. She then pulled herself up to her full height and was
about to deliver a full account of her feelings concerning
these events at the top of her voice, when she suddenly got an
alarming sense of where she was standing.
Though the night was dark, the wind whipping at her and
the pungent smell of it told her that some kind of sea was very
close by. The sound of wild crashing breakers told her that in
fact it was more or less beneath her, that they were standing
very near to the edge of a cliff. She gripped the arm of the
insufferable god who had brought her here and hoped, vainly,
that it hurt him.
As her reeling senses began gradually to calm down she
noticed that there was a dim light spreading away before her,
and after a while she realised that this was coming off the
sea.
The whole sea was glowing like an infection. It was
rearing itself up in the night, lunging and thrashing in a
turmoil of itself and then smashing itself to pieces in a
frenzy of pain against the rocks of the coast. Sea and sky
seethed at each other in a poisonous fury.
Kate watched it speechlessly, and then became aware of
Thor standing at her shoulder.
"I met you at an airport," he said, his voice breaking up
in the wind. "I was trying to get home to Norway by plane." He
pointed out to sea. "I wanted you to see why I couldn't come
this way."
"Where are we? What is this?" asked Kate fearfully.
"In your world, this is the North Sea," said Thor and
turned away inland again, walking heavily and dragging his
hammer behind him.
Kate pulled her wet coat close around her and hurried
after him.
"Well, why didn't you just fly home the way we just did
but in, well, in our world?"
The rage in her had subsided into vague worries about
vocabulary.
"I tried," responded Thor, still walking away.
"Well, what happened?"
"I don't want to talk about it."
"What on earth's the point of that?"
"I'm not going to discuss it."
Kate shuddered in exasperation. "Is this godlike
behaviour?" she shouted. "It bothers you so you won't talk
about it?"
"Thor! Thor! Is it you?"
This last was a thin voice trailing over the wind. Kate
peered into the wind. Through the darkness a lantern was
bobbing towards them from behind a low rise.
"Is that you, Thor?" A little old lady came into view,
holding a lantern above her head, hobbling enthusiastically. "I
thought that must be your hammer I saw. Welcome!" she
chirruped. "Oh, but you come in dismal times. I was just
putting the pot on and thinking of having a cup of something
and then perhaps killing myself, but then I said to myself,
just wait a couple of days longer, Tsuliwa..., Tsuwila...,
Swuli..., Tsuliwaкnsis - I can never pronounce my own name
properly when I'm talking to myself, and it drives me hopping
mad, as I'm sure you can imagine, such a bright boy as I've
always maintained, never mind what those others say, so I said
to myself, Tsuliwaкnsis, see if anyone comes along, and if they
don't, well, then might be a good time to think about killing
myself. And look! Now here you are! Oh, but you are welcome,
welcome! And I see you've brought a little friend. Are you
going to introduce me? Hello, my dear, hello! My name's
Tsuliwaкnsis and I won't be at all offended if you stutter."
"I... I'm, er, Kate," said Kate, totally flummoxed.
"Yes, well I'm sure that will be all right," said the old
woman sharply. "Anyway, come along if you're coming. If you're
going to hang around out here all night I may as well just get
straight on with killing myself now and let you get your own
tea when you're quite ready. Come along!"
She hurried on ahead, and in a very few yards they reached
a terrible kind of ramshackle structure of wood and mud which
looked as if it had become unaccountably stuck while half way
through collapsing. Kate glanced at Thor, hoping to read some
kind of reaction from him to give her a bearing on the
situation, but he was occupied with his own thoughts and was
clearly not about to share them. Thene seemed to her to be a
difference in the way he moved, though. In the brief experience
she had of him he seemed constantly to be struggling with some
internal and constrained anger, and this, she felt, had lifted.
Not gone away, just lifted. He stood aside to allow her to
enter Tsuliwaкnsis's shack, and brusquely gestured her to go
in. He followed, ducking absurdly, a few seconds later, having
paused for a moment outside to survey what little could be seen
of the surrounding landscape.
Inside was tiny. A few boards with straw for a bed, a
simmering pot hung over a fire, and a box tucked away in the
corner for sitting on.
"And this is the knife I was thinking of using, you see,"
said Tsuliwaкnsis, fussing around. "Just been sharpening it up
nicely, you see. It comes up very nice if you get a nice
sweeping action with the stone, and I was thinking here would
be a good place, you see? Here on the wall, I can stick the
handle in this crack so it's held nice and firm, and then just
go fling! And fling myself at it. Fling! You see?
I wonder, should it be a little lower, what do you think, my
dear? Know about these things, do you?"
Kate explained that she did not, and managed to sound
reasonably calm about it.
"Tsuliwaкnsis," said Thor, "we have come not to stay but
to...Tsuli - please put the knife down."
Tsuliwaкnsis was standing looking up at them quite
chirpily, but she was also holding the knife, with its great
heavy sweeping blade, poised over her own left wrist.
"Don't mind me, dears," she said, "I'm quite comfortable.
I can just pop off any time I'm ready. Happy to. These times
are not to live in. Oh, no. You go off and be happy. I won't
disturb your happiness with the sound of me screaming. I'll
hardly make a sound with the knife as you go." She stood
quivering and challenging.
Carefully, almost gently, Thor reached out and drew the
knife away and out of her shaking hand. The old woman seemed to
crumple as it went, and all the performance faded out of her.
She sat back in a heap on her box. Thor squatted down in front
of her, slowly drew her to him and hugged her. She gradually
seemed to come back to life, and eventually pushed him away
telling him not to be so stupid, and then made a bit of a fuss
of smoothing out her hopelessly ragged and dirty black dress.
When once she had composed herself properly she turned her
attention to Kate and looked her up and down.
"You're a mortal, dear, aren't you?" she said at last.
"Well... yes," said Kate.
"I can tell it from your fancy dress. Oh, yes. Well, now
you see what the world looks like from the other side, don't
you, dear? What do you think then?"
Kate explained that she did not yet know what to think.
Thor sat himself down on the floor and leant his big head back
against the wall, half-closing his eyes. Kate had the sense
that he was preparing himself for something.
"It used to be things were not so different," continued
the old woman. "Used to be lovely here, you know, all lovely.
Bit of give and take between us. Terrible rows, of course,
terrible fights, but really it was all lovely. Now?" She let
out a long and tired sigh, and brushed a bit of nothing much
off the wall.
"Oh, things are bad," she said, "things are very bad. You
see things get affected by things. Our world affects your
world, your world affects our world. Sometimes it is hard to
know exactly what that effect is. Very often it is hard to like
it, either. Most of them, these days, are difficult and bad.
But our worlds are so nearly the same in so many ways. Where in
your world you have a building there will be a structure here
as well. Maybe it will be a small muddy hillock, or a beehive,
or an abode like this one. Maybe it will be something a little
grander, but it will be something. You all right, Thor, dear?"
The Thunder God closed his eyes and nodded. His elbows lay
easily across his knees. The ragged strips of Kate's nightgown
bound about his left forearm were limp and wet. He idly pushed
them off.
"And where there is something which is not dealt with
properly in your world," the old lady pranled on, "as like as
not it will emerge in ours. Nothing disappears. No guilty
secret. No unspoken thought. It may be a new and mighty god in
our world, or it may be just a gnat, but it will be here. I
might add that these days it is more often a gnat than a new
and mighty god. Oh, there are so many more gnats and fewer
immortal gods than once there were."
"How can there be fewer immortals?" asked Kate. "I don't
want to be pedantic about it, but - "
"Well, there's being immortal, dear, and then again
there's being immortal. I mean, if I could just get this knife
properly secured and then work up a really good fling, we'd
soon see who was immortal and who wasn't."
"Tsuli..." admonished Thor, but didn't open his eyes to do
it.
"One by one we're going, though. We are, Thor. You're one
of the few that care. There's few enough now that haven't
succumbed to alcoholism or the onx."
"What is that? Some kind of disease?" asked Kate. She was
beginning to feel cross again. Having been dragged unwillingly
from her flat and hurled across the whole of East Anglia on the
end of a hammer, she was irritated at being then just abandoned
to a conversation with an insanely suicidal old woman while
Thor just sat and looked content with himself, leaving her to
make an effort she was not in a mood to make.
"It's an affliction, dear, which only gods get. It really
means that you can't take being a god any more, which is why
only gods get it you see."
"I see."
"In the final stages of it you simply lie on the ground
and after a while a tree grows out of your head and then it's
all over. You rejoin the earth, seep into its bowels, flow
through its vital arteries, and eventually emerge as a great
pure torrent of water, and as like as not get a load of
chemical waste dumped into you. It's a grim business being a
god nowadays, even a dead god.
"Well," she said, patting her knees. Her eyes hovered on
Thor, who had opened his eyes but was only using them to stare
at his own knuckles and fingertips. "Well, I hear you have an
appointment tonight, Thor."
"Hmm," grunted Thor, without moving.
"I hear you've called together the Great Hall for the
Challenging Hour, is that right?"
"Hmm," said Thor.
"The Challenging Hour, hmm? Well, I know that things have
not been too good between you and your father for a long time.
Hmm?"
Thor wasn't going to be drawn. He said nothing.
"I thought it was quite dreadful about Wales," continued
Tsuliwaкnsis. "Don't know why you stood for it. Of course I
realise that he's your father and the All-Father which makes it
difficult. But, Odin, Odin - I've known him for so long. You
know that he made a deal once to sacrifice one of his own eyes
in exchange for wisdom? Of course you do, dear, you're his son,
aren't you? Well, what I've always said is he should stand up
and make a fuss about that particular deal, demand his eye
back. Do you know what I mean by that, Thor? And that horrible
Toe Rag. There's someone to be careful of, Thor, very careful
indeed. Well, I expect I shall hear all about it in the
morning, won't I?"
Thor slid his back up the wall and stood up. He clasped
the old woman warmly by the hands and smiled a tight smile, but
said nothing. With a slight nod he gestured to Kate that they
were leaving. Since leaving was what she most wanted in all the
world to do she resisted the temptation to say "Oh yeah?" and
kick up a fuss about being treated like this. Meekly she bade a
polite farewell to the old woman and made her way out into the
murky night. Thor followed her.
She folded her arms and said, "Well? Where now? What other
great social events have you got in store for me this evening?"
Thor prowled around a linle, examining the ground. He
pulled out his hammer, and weighed it appreciatively in his
hands. He peered out into the night, and swung the hammer a
couple of times, idly. He swung himself round a couple of
times, again not hard. He loosed the hammer, which bounded off
into the night and split open a casually situated rock a couple
of dozen yards away and then bounded back. He caught it easily,
tossed it up into the air and caught it easily again.
Then he turned to her and looked her in the eye for the
first time.
"Would you like to see something?" he asked.

Chapter 27

A gust of wind blew through the huge vaults of the empty
station and nearly provoked in Dirk a great howl of frustration
at the trail that had so suddenly gone cold on him. The cold
moonlight draped itself through the long ranges of glass panels
that extended the length of the St Pancras station roof.
It fell on empty rails, and illuminated them. It fell on
the train departures board, it fell on the sign which explained
that today was a Blue Saver Day and illuminated them both.
Framed in the archway formed by the far end of the vaulted
roof were the fantastical forms of five great gasometers, the
supporting superstructures of which seemed in their
adumbrations to be tangled impossibly with each other, like the
hoops of an illusionist's conjuring trick. The moonlight
illuminated these as well, but Dirk it did not illuminate.
He had watched upwards of a hundred people or so simply
vanish into thin air in a way that was completely impossible.
That in itself did not give him a problem. The impossible did
not bother him unduly. If it could not possibly be done, then
obviously it had been done impossibly. The question was how?
He paced the area of the station which they had all
vanished from, and scanned everything that could be seen from
every vantage point within it, looking for any clue, any
anomaly, anything that might let him pass into whatever it was
he had just seen a hundred people pass into as if it was
nothing. He had the sense of a major party taking place in the
near vicinity, to which he had not been invited. In desperation
he started to spin around with his arms outstretched, then
decided this was completely futile and lit a cigarette instead.
He noticed that as he had pulled out the packet, a piece
of paper had fluttered from his pocket, which, once the
cigarette was burning well, he stooped to retrieve.
It was nothing exciting, just the bill he had picked up
from the stroppy nurse in the cafи. "Outrageous," he thought
about each of the items in turn as he scanned down them, and
was about to screw it up and throw it away when a thought
struck him about the general layout of the document.
The items charged were listed down the left hand side, and
the actual charges down the right.
On his own bills when he issued them, when he had a
client, which was rare at the moment, and the ones he did have
seemed unable to stay alive long enough to receive his bills
and be outraged by them, he usually went to a little trouble
about the items charged. He constructed essays, little
paragraphs to describe them. He liked the client to feel that
he or she was getting his or her money's worth in this respect
at least.
In short, the bills he issued corresponded in layout
almost exactly to the wad of papers with indecipherable runic
scripts which he had been unable to make head or tail of a
couple of hours previously. Was that helpful? He didn't know.
If the wad was not a contract but a bill, what might it be the
bill for? What services had been performed? They must certainly
have been intricate services. Or at least, intricately
described services. Which professions might that apply to? It
was at least something to think about. He screwed up the cafи
bill and moved off to throw it into a bin.
As it happened, this was a fortuitous move.
It meant that he was away from the central open space of
the station, and near a wall against which he could press
himself inconspicuously when he suddenly heard the sound of two
pairs of feet crossing the forecourt outside.
In a few seconds, they entered the main part of the
station, by which time Dirk was well out of sight round the
angle of a wall.
Being well out of sight worked less well for him in
another respect, which was that for a while he was unable to
see the owners of the feet. By the time he caught a glimpse of
them, they had reached exactly the same area where a few
minutes previously a small horde of people had, quietly and
without fuss, vanished.
He was surprised by the red spectacles of the woman and
the quietly tailred Italian suit of the man, and also the speed
with which they themselves then immediately vanished.
Dirk stood speechless. The same two damn people who had
been the bane of his life for the entire day (he allowed
himself this slight exaggeration on the grounds of extreme
provocation) had now flagrantly and deliberately disappeared in
front of his eyes.
Once he was quite certain that they had absolutely
definitely vanished and were not merely hiding behind each
other, he ventured out once more into the mysterious space.
It was bafflingly ordinary. Ordinary tarmacadam, ordinary
air, ordinary everything. And yet a quantity of people that
would have kept the Bermuda triangle industry happy for an
entire decade had just vanished in it within the space of five
minutes.
He was deeply aggravated.
He was so deeply aggravated that he thought he would share
the sense of aggravation by phoning someone up and aggravating
them - as it would be almost certain to do at twenty past one
in the morning.
This wasn't an entirely arbitrary thought - he was still
anxious concerning the safety of the American girl, Kate
Schechter, and had not been at all reassuned to have been
answered by her machine when last he had called. By now she
should surely be at home and in bed asleep, and would be
reassuringly livid to be woken by a meddling phone call at this
time.
He found a couple of coins and a working telephone and
dialled her number. He got her answering machine again.
It said that she had just out for the night to Asgard. She
wasn't certain which parts of Asgard they were going to but
they would probably swing by Valhalla later, if the evening was
up to it. If he cared to leave a message she would deal with it
in the morning if she was still alive and in the mood. There
were some beeps, which rang on in Dirk's ear for seconds after
he heard them.
"Oh," he said, realising that the machine was currently
busy taping him, "good heavens. Well, I thought the arrangement
was that you were going to call me befone doing anything
impossible."
He put the phone down, his head spinning angrily.
Valhalla, eh? Was that where everybody was going to tonight
except him? He had a good mind to go home, go to bed and wake
up in the grocery business.
Valhalla.
He looked about him once again, with the name Valhalla
ringing in his ears. There was no doubt, he felt, that a space
this size would make a good feasting hall for gods and dead
heroes, and that the empty Midland Grand Hotel would be almost
worth moving the shebang from Norway for.
He wondered if it made any difference knowing what it was
you were walking into.
Nervously, tentatively, he walked across and through the
space in question. Nothing. Oh well. He turned, and stood
surveying it for a moment or two while he took a couple of slow
drags on the cigarette he had got from the tramp. The space
didn't look any different.
He walked back through it again, this time a little less
tentatively, but with slow positive steps. Once again, nothing
happened, but then just as he was moving out of it at the end
he half fancied that he half heard a half moment of some kind
of raucous sound, like a burst of white noise on a twisted
radio dial. He turned once more, and headed back into the
space, moving his head carefully round trying to pick up the
slightest sound. For a while he didn't catch it, then suddenly
there was a snatch of it that burst around him and was gone. A
movement and another snatch. He moved very, very slowly and
carefully. With the most slight and gentle movements, trying to
catch at the sound he moved his head round what seemed like a
billionth part of a billionth part of a degree, slipped behind
a molecule and was gone.
He had instantly to duck to avoid a great eagle swooping
out of the vast space at him.

Chapter 28

It was another eagle, a different eagle. The next one was
a different eagle too, and the next. The air seemed to be thick
with eagles, and it was obviously impossible to enter Valhalla
without getting swooped on by at least half a dozen of them.
Even eagles were being swooped on by eagles.
Dirk threw up his arms over his head to fend off the wild,
beating flurries, turned, tripped and fell down behind a huge
table on to a floor of heavy, damp, earthy straw. His hat
rolled under the table. He scrambled after it, stuffed it back
firmly on his head, and slowly peered up over the table.
The hall was dark, but alive with great bonfires.
Noise and woodsmoke filled the air, and the smells of
roasting pigs, roasting sheep, roasting boar, and sweat and
reeking wine and singed eagle wings.
The table he was crouched behind was one of countless
slabs of oak on trestles that stretched in every direction,
laden with steaming hunks of dead animals, huge breads, great
iron beakers slopping with wine and candles like wax anthills.
Massive sweaty figures seethed around them, on them, eating,
drinking, fighting over the food, fighting in the food,
fighting with the food.
A yard or so from Dirk, a warrior was standing on top of a
table fighting a pig which had been roasting for six hours, and
he was clearly losing, but losing with vim and spirit and being
cheered on by other warriors who were dousing him down with
wine from a trough.
The roof - as much of it as could be made out at this
distance, and by the dark and flickering light of the bonfires
- was made of lashed-together shields.
Dirk clutched his hat, kept his head down and ran, trying
to make his way towards the side of the hall. As he ran,
feeling himself to be virtually invisible by reason of being
completely sober and, by his own lights, normally dressed, he
seemed to pass examples of every form of bodily function
imaginable, other than actual teeth-cleaning.
The smell, like that of the tramp in King's Cross station,
who must surely be here participating, was one that never
stopped coming at you. It grew and grew until it seemed that
your head had to become bigger and bigger to accommodate it.
The din of sword on sword, sword on shield, sword on flesh,
flesh on flesh was one that made the eardrums reel and quiver
and want to cry. He was pummelled, tripped, elbowed, shoved and
drenched with wine as he scumed and pushed through the wild
throng, but arrived at last at a side wall - massive slabs of
wood and stone faced with sheets of stinking cow hide.
Panting, he stopped for a moment, looked back and surveyed
the scene with amazement.
It was Valhalla.
Of that there would be absolutely no question. This was
not something that could be mocked up by a catering company.
And the whole seething, wild mass of carousing gods and
warriors and their caroused-at ladies, with their shields and
fires and boars did seem to fill a space that must be something
approaching the size of St Pancras station. The sheer heat that
rose off it all seemed as if it should suffocate the flocks of
deranged eagles which thrashed through the air above them.
And maybe it was. He was by no means certain that a flock
of enraged eagles which thought that they might be suffocating
would behave significantly differently from many of the eagles
he was currently watching.
There was something he had been putting off wondering
while he had fought his way through the mass, but the time had
come to wonder it now.
What, he wondered, about the Draycotts?
What could the Draycotts possibly be doing here? And
whene, in such a mйlиe, could the Draycotts possibly be?
He narrowed his eyes and peered into the heaving throng,
trying to see if he could locate anywhere a pair of red
designer spectacles or a quiet Italian suit mingling out there
with the clanging breastplates and the sweaty leathers, knowing
that the attempt was futile but feeling that it should be made.
No, he decided, he couldn't see them. Not, he felt, their
kind of party. Further reflections along these lines were cut
short by a heavy short-handled axe which hurtled through the
air and buried itself with an astounding thud in the wall about
three inches from his left ear and for a moment blotted out all
thought.
When he recovered from the shock of it, and let his breath
out, he thought that it was probably not somethiog that had
been thrown at him with malicious intent, but was merely
warriorly high spirits. Nevertheless, he was not in a partying
mood and decided to move on. He edged his way along the wall in
the direction which, had this actually been St Pancras station
rather than the hall of Valhalla, would have led to the ticket
office. He didn't know what he would find there, but he
reckoned that it must be different to this, which would be
good.
It seemed to him that things were generally quieter here,
out on the periphery.
The biggest and best of the good tunes soemed to be
concentrated more strongly towanls the middle of the hall,
whereas the tables he was passing now seemed to be peopled with
those who looked as if they had teached that season in their
immortal lives when they preferred to contemplate the times
when they used to wrestle dead pigs, and to pass appreciative
comments to each other about the finer points of dead pig
wrestling technique, than actually to wrestle with one again
themselves just at the moment.
He overheard one remark to his companion that it was the
left-handed three-fingered flat grip on the opponent's sternum
that was all-important at the crucial moment of finally not
quite falling over in a complete stupor, to which his companion
responded with a benign "Oh ah."
Dirk stopped, looked and backtracked.
Sitting hunched in a thoughtful posture over his iron
plate, and clad in heavily stained and matted furs and buckles
which were, if anything, more rank and stinking than the
ensemble Dirk had last encountered him in, was Dirk's companion
from the concourse at King's Cross station.
Dirk wondered how to approach him. A quick backslap and a
"Hey! Good party. Lot of energy," was one strategy, but Dirk
didn't think it was the right one.
While he was wondering, an eagle suddenly swooped down
from out of the air and, with a lot of beating and thrashing,
landed on the table in front of the old man, folded its wings
and advanced on him, demanding to be fed. Easily, the old man
pulled a bit of meat off a bone and held it up to the great
bird, which pecked it sharply but accurately out of his
fingers.
Dirk thought that this was the key to a friendly approach.
He leant over the table and picked up a small hunk of meat and
offered it in turn to the bird. The bird attacked him and went
for his neck, forcing him to try and beat the savage creature
off with his hat, but the introduction was made.
"Oh ah," said the man, shooed the eagle away and shifted a
couple of inches along the bench. Though it was not a fulsome
invitation, it was at least an invitation. Dirk clambered over
the bench and sat down.
`"Thank you," said Dirk, puffing.
"Oh ah."
"If you remember, we - "
At that moment the most tremendous reverberating thump
sounded out across Velhalla. It was the sound of a drum being
beaten, but it sounded like a drum of immense proportions, as
it had to be to make itself heard over the tumult of noise with
which the hall was filled. The drum sounded three times, in
slow and massive beats, like the heartbeat of the hall itself.
Dirk looked up to see where the sound might have come
from. He noticed for the first time that at the south end of
the hall, to which he had been heading, a great balcony or
bridge extended across most of its width. There were some
figures up there, dimly visible through the heat haze and the
eagles, but Dirk had a sense that whoever was up there presided
over whoever was down here.
Odin, thought Dirk. Odin the All-Father must be up on the
balcony.
The sound of the revels died down quickly, though it was
several seconds before the reverberations of the noise finally
fell away.
When all was quiet, but expectant, a great voice rang out
from the balcony and through the hall.
The voice said, '"The time of the Challenging Hour is
nearly at an end. The Challenging Hour has been called by the
God Thor. For the third time of asking, where is Thor?"
A murmuring throughout the hall suggested that nobody knew
where Thor was and why he had not come to make his challenge.
The voice said, "This is a very grave affront to the
dignity of the All-Father. If there is no challenge before the
expiration of the hour, the penalty for Thor shall be
correspondingly grave."
The drum beat again three times, and the consternation in
the hall increased. Where was Thor?
"He's with some girl," said a voice above the rest, and
there were loud shouts of laughter, and a return to the hubbub
of before.
"Yes." said Dirk, quietly, "I expect he probably is."
"Oh ah."
Dirk had supposed that he was talking to himself and was
surprised to have elicited a response from the man, though not
particularly surprised at the response that had been elicited.
"Thor called this meeting tonight?" Dirk asked him.
"Oh ah."
"Bit rude not to turn up."
"Oh ah."
"I expect everyone's n bit upset."
"Not as long as there's enough pigs to go round."
"Pigs?"
"Oh ah."
Dirk didn't immediately know how to go on from here.
"Oh ah," he said, resignedly.
"It's only Thor as really cares, you see," said the old
man. "Keeps on issuing his challenge, then not being able to
prove it. Can't argue. Gets all confused and angry, does
something stupid, can't sort it out and gets made to do a
penance. Everybody else just turns up for the pigs."
"Oh ah." Dirk was learning a whole new conversational
technique and was astonished at how successful it was. He
regarded the man with a new-found respect.
"Do you know how many stones there are in Wales?" asked
the man suddenly.
"Oh ah," said Dirk warily. He didn't know this joke.
"Nor do I. He won't tell anybody. Says count 'em yourself
and goes off in a sulk."
"Oh ah." He didn't think it was a very good one.
"So this time he hasn't even turned up. Can't say I blame
him. But I'm sorry, because I think he might be right."
"Oh ah."
The man lapsed into silence.
Dirk waited.
"Oh ah," he said again, hopefully.
Nothing.
"So, er," said Dirk, going for a cautious prompt, "you
think he might be right, eh?"
"Oh ah."
"So.Old Thor might be right, eh? That's the story," said
Dirk.
"Oh ah."
"In what way," said Dirk, running out of patience at last,
"do you think he might be right?"
"Oh, every way."
"Oh ah," said Dirk, defeated.
"It's no secret that the gods have fallen on hard times,"
said the old man, grimly. "That's clear for all to see, even
for the ones who only care about the pigs,which is most of 'em.
And when you feel you're not needed any more it can be hard to
think beyond the next pig,even if you used to have the whole
world there with you. Everyone just accepts it as inevitable.
Everyone except Thor, that is. And now he's given up. Hasn't
even bothered to turn up and break a pig with us.Given up his
challenge. Oh ah."
"Oh ah," said Dirk.
"Oh ah."
"So, er, Thor's challenge then," said Dirk tentatively.
"Oh ah."
"What was it?"
"Oh ah."
Dirk lost his patience entirely and rounded on the man.
"What was Thor's challenge to Odin?" he insisted angrily.
The man looked round at him in slow surprise,lookcd him up
and down with his big sagging eyes.
"You're a mortal, aren't you?"
"Yes," said Dirk testily, "I'm a mortal. Of course I'm a
mortal. What has being a mortal got to do with it?"
"How did you get here?"
"I followed you." He pulled the screwed up, empty
cigarette packet out of his pocket and put it on the table.
"Thanks," he said, "I owe you."
It was a pretty feeble type of apology, he thought, but it
was the best he could manage.
"Oh ah." The man looked away.
"What was Thor's challenge to Odin?" said Dirk, trying
hard to keep the impatience out of his voice this time.
"What does it matter to you?" the old immortal said
bitterly. "You're a mortal. Why should you care? You've got
what you want out of it, you and your kind, for what little
it's now worth."
"Got what we want out of what?"
"The deal," said the old immortal. "The contract that Thor
claims Odin has entered into."
"Contract?" said Dirk. "What contract?"
The man's face filled with an expression of slow anger.
The bonfires of Valhalla danced deeply in his eyes as he looked
at Dirk.
"The sale," he said darkly, "of an immortal soul."
"What?" said Dirk. He had already considered this idea and
discounted it. "You mean a man has sold his soul to him? What
man? It doesn't make sense."
"No," said the man, "that wouldn't make sense at all. I
said an immortal soul. Thor says that Odin has sold his soul to
Man."
Dirk stared at him with horror and then slowly raised his
eyes to the balcony. Something was happening there. The great
drum beat out again, and the hall of Valhalla began to hush
itself once more. But a second or third drumbeat failed to
come. Something unexpected seemed to have occurred, and the
figures on the balcony were moving in some confusion. The
Challenging Hour was just expiring, but a challenge of some
kind seemed to have arrived.
Dirk beat his palms to his forehead and swayed where he
sat as all kinds of realisations finally dawned on him.
"Not to Man," he said, "but to a man, and a woman. A
lawyer and an advertiser. I said it was all her fault the
moment I saw her. I didn't realise I might actually be right."
He rounded on his companion urgently. "I have to get up there,"
he said, "for Gods' sake, help me."

Chapter 29

"O...dddddiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnn!!!!!!!"
Thor let out a bellow of rage which made the sky shake.
The heavy clouds let out a surprised grunt of thunder at the
sheer volume of air that moved beneath them. Kate started back,
white with fear and shock, with her ears ringing.
"Toe Rag!!!!"
He hurled his hammer to the ground right at his very feet
with both hands. He hurled it this short distance with such
astounding force that it hit and rebounded into the air up to
about a hundred feet.
"Ggggrrrrrraaaaaaaah!!!!!!" With an immense explosion of
air from his lungs he hurled himself up into the air after it,
caught it just as it was beginning to drop, and hurled it
straight back down at the ground again, catching it again as it
bounded back up, twisting violently round in mid-air and
hurling it with all the force he could muster out to sea before
falling to the ground himself on his back, and pounding the
earth with his ankles, elbows and fists in an incredible tattoo
of rage.
The hammer shot out over the sea on a very low trajectory.
The head went down into the water and planed through it at a
constant depth of about six inches. A sharp ripple opened
slowly but easily across its surface, extending eventually to
about a mile as the hammer sliced its way through it like a
surgeon's knife. The inner walls of the ripple deepened
smoothly in its wake, falling away from the sheer force of the
hammer, till a vast valley had opened in the face of the sea.
The walls of the valley wobbled and swayed uncertainly, then
folded up and crashed together in crazed and foaming tumult.
The hammer lifted its head and swung up high into the air. Thor
leapt to his feet and watched it, still pounding his feet on
the ground like a boxer, but like a boxer who was perhaps about
to precipitate a major earthquake. When the hammer reached the
top of its trajectory, Thor hurled his fist downwards like a
conductor, and the hammer hurtled down into the crashing mass
of sea.
That seemed to calm the sea for a moment in the same way
that a smack in the face will calm a hysteric. The moment
passed. An immense column of watcr crupted out of the smack,
and seconds later the hammer exploded upwards out of its
centre, pulling another huge column of water up from the middle
of the first one.
The hammer somersaulted at the top of its rise, turned,
spun, and rushed back to its owner like a wildly over-excited
puppy. Thor caught at it, but instead of stopping it he allowed
it to carry him backwards, and together they tumbled back
through the rocks for about a hundred yards and scuffled to a
halt in some soft earth.
Instantly, Thor was back on his feet again. He turned
round and round, bounding from one leg to the other with
strides of nearly ten feet, swinging the hammer round him at
arm's length. When he released it again it raced out to sea
once more, but this time it tore round the surface in a giant
semicircle, causing the sea to rear up around its circumference
to form for a moment a gigantic amphitheatre of water. When it
fell forward it crashed like a tidal wave, ran forward and
threw itself, enraged, against the short wall of the cliff.
The hammer returned to Thor, who threw it off again
instantly in a great overarm. It flew into a rock, hitting off
a fat angry spark. It bounded off further and hit a spark off
another rock, and another. Thor threw himself forward on to his
knees, and with each rock the hammer hit he pounded the ground
with his fist to make the rock rise to meet the hammer. Spark
after spark erupted from the rocks. The hammer hit each
successive one harder and harder, until one spark provoked a
warning lick of lightning from the clouds.
And then the sky began to move, slowly, like a great angry
animal uncoiling in its lair. The pounding sparks flew faster
and heavier from the hammer, more lightning licks arced down to
meet them from the sky, and the whole earth was beginning to
tremble in something very like fearful excitement.
Thor hauled his elbows up above his head and then thrust
them hard down with another ringing bellow at the sky.
"O...ddddiiiiiiinnnnnn!!!!"
The sky seemed about to crack open.
"Toe Raaaaagggggggggg!!!!!!!!!"
Thor throw himself into the ground, heaving aside about
two skipsful of rocky carth. He shook with expanding rage. With
a deep groan the whole of the side of the cliff began slowly to
lean forward into the sea as he pushed and shook. In a few
seconds more it tumbled heavily into the seething torment
beneath it as Thor clambered back, seized a rock the size of a
grand piano and held it above his head.
Everything seemed still for a fleeting moment.
Thor hurled the rock into the sea.
He regained his hammer.
"O...!" he bellowed.
"...Ddddddddinnnnnnn!!!!!!!!!!"
His hammer cracked down.
A torrent of water erupted from the ground, and the sky
exploded. Lightning flickered down like a white wall of light
for miles along the coast in either direction. Thunder roared
like colliding worlds and the clouds vomited rain that
shattered the ground. Thor stood exulting in the torrent.
A few minutes later and the violence abated. A strong and
steady rain continued to fall. The clouds were cleansing
themselves and the weak rays of the early morning light began
to find their way through the thinning cover.
Thor trudged back up from where he had been standing,
slapping and washing the mud from his hands. He caught at his
hammer when it flew to him.
He found Kate standing watching him, shivering with
astonishment, fear and fury.
"What was that all about?" she yelled at him.
"I just needed to be able to lose my temper properly," he
said. When this didn't seem to satisfy her he added, "A god can
show off once in a while can't he?"
The huddled figure of Tsuliwaкnsis came hurrying out
through the rain towards them.
"You're a noisy boy, Thor," she scolded, "a noisy boy."
But Thor was gone. When they looked, they guessed that he
must be the tiny speck hurtling northwards through the clearing
sky.

Chapter 30

Cynthia Draycott peered over the balcony at the sceene
below them with distaste. Valhalla was back in full swing.
"I hate this," she said, "I don't want this going on in my
life."
"You don't have to, my darling," said Clive Draycott
quietly from behind her, with his hands on her shoulders. "It's
all going to be taken care of right now, and it's going to work
out just fine. Couldn't be better in fact. It's just what we
wanted. You know, you look fantastic in those glasses? They
really suit you. I mean really. They're very chic."
"Clive, it was meant to have been taken care of
originally. The whole point was that we weren't to be troubled,
we could just do it, deal with it, and forget about it. That
was the whole point. I've put up with enough shit in my life. I
just wanted it to be good, 100 per cent. I don't want all
this."
"Exactly. And that's why this is so perfect for us. So
perfect. Clear breach of contract. We get everything we wanted
now, and we're released from all obligations. Perfecto. We come
out of it smelling of roses, and we have a life that is just
100 per cent good. 100 per cent. And clean. Just exactly as you
wanted it. Really, it couldn't be better for us. Trust me."
Cynthia Draycott hugged herself irritably.
"So what about this new...person? Something else we have
to deal with."
"It'll be so easy. So easy. Listen, this is nothing. We
either cut him in to it, or we cut him right out. It'll be
taken care of before we leave here. We'll buy him something. A
new coat. Maybe we'll have to buy him a new house. Know what
that'll cost us?" He gave a charming laugh. "It's nothing. You
won't ever even need to think about it. You won't ever even
need to think about not thinking about it. It's... that...
easy. OK?"
"Hm."
"OK. I'll be right back."
He turned and headed back into the ante-chamber of the
hall of the All-Fattier, smiling all the way.
"So, Mr... " he made a show of looking at the card again
"... Gently. You want to act for these people do you?"
"These immortal gods," said Dirk.
"OK, gods," said Draycott. "'That's fine. Perhaps you'll
do a better job than the manic little hustler I had to deal
with first time out. You know, he's really quite a little
character, our Mr Rag, Mr Rag. You know, that guy was
really quite amazing. He did everything he could, tried every
oldest trick in the book to freak me out, and give me the
run-around. You know how I deal with people like that? Simple.
I ignore it. I just...ignone it. If he wants to play around and
threaten and screech, and shovel in five hundred and seventeen
subclauses that he thinks he's going to catch me out on, that's
OK. He's just taking up time, but so what? I've got time. I've
got plenty of time for people like Mr Rag. Because you know
what the really crazy thing is? You know what's really
crazy? The guy cannot draw up an actual contract to save his
life. Really. To save...his...life. And I tell you something,
that's fine by me. He can thrash around and spit all he likes -
when he gets tired I just reel him in. Listen. I draw up
contracts in the recond business. These guys are just minnows
by comparison. They're primitive savages. You've met them.
You've dealt with them. They're primitive savages. Well, aren't
they? Like the Red Indians. They don't even know what they've
got. You know, these people are lucky they didn't meet some
real shark. I mean it. You know what America cost? You know
what the whole United States of America actually cost? You
don't, and neither do I. And shall I tell you why? The sum is
so negligible that someone could tell us what it was and two
minutes later we would have forgotten. It would have gone clean
out of our minds.
"Now, compared with that, let me tell you, I am providing.
I am really providing. A private suite in the Woodshead
Hospital? Lavish attention, food, sensational quantities of
linen. Sensational. You could practically buy the United
States of America at today's prices for what that's all
costing. But you know what? I said, if he wants the linen, let
him have the linen. Just let him have it. It's fine. The guy's
earned it. He can have all the linen...he...wants. Just don't
fuck with me is all.
"Now let me tell you, this guy has a nice life. A
nice life. And I think that's what we all want, isn't
it. A nice life. This guy certainly did. And he didn't know how
to have it. None of these guys did. They're just kind of
helpless in the modern world. It's kind of tough for them and
I'm just trying to help out. Let me tell you how naоve they
are, and I mean naоve.
"My wife, Cynthia, you've met her, and let me tell you,
she is the best. I tell you, my relationship with Cynthia is so
good- "
"I don't want to hear about your relationship with your
wife."
"OK. That's fine. That's absolutely fine. I just think
maybe it's worth you getting to know a few things. But whatever
you want is fine. OK. Cynthia's in advertising. You know that.
She is a senior partner in a major agency. Major. They did some
big campaign, really big, a few years back in which some actor
is playing a god in this commercial. And he's endorsing
something, I don't know, a soft drink, you know, tooth rot for
kids.
And Odin at this time is just a down and out. He's living
on the streets. He simply can't get anything together, because
he's just not for this world. All that power, but he doesn't
know how to make it work for him here, today. Now here's the
crazy part.
"Odin sees this commercial on the television and he thinks
to himself, `Hey, I could do that, I'm a god.' He thinks maybe
he could get paid for being in a commercial. And you know what
that would be. Pays even less than the United States of America
cost, you follow me? Think about it. Odin, the chief and fount
of all the power of all of the Norse gods, thinks he might
be able to
get paid for being in a television commercial
to sell soft drinks.

"And this guy, this god, literally goes out and tries to find
someone who'll let him in a TV commercial. Pathetically naоve.
But also greedy - let's not forget greedy.
"Anyway, he happens to come to Cynthia's attention. She's
just a lowly account executive at the time, doesn't pay any
attention, thinks he's just a whacko, but then she gets kind of
fascinated by how odd he is, and I get to see him. And you know
what? It dawns on us he's for real. The guy is for real. A real
actual god with the whole panoply of divine powers. And not
only a god, but like, the main one. The one all the others
depend on for their power. And he wants to be in a commercial.
Let's just say the word again shall we? A commercial.
"The idea was dumbfounding. Didn't the guy know what he
had? Didn't he realise what his power could get him?
"Apparently not. I have to tell you, this was the most
astounding moment in our lives. A...stoun...ding. Let me tell
you, Cynthia and I have always known that we were, well,
special people, and that something special would happen to us,
and here it was. Something special.
"But look. We're not greedy. We don't want all that power,
all that wealth. And I mean, we're looking at the world here.
The whole...fucking...world. We could own the world if we
wanted to. But who wants to own the world? Think of the
trouble. We don't even want huge wealth, all those lawyers
accountants to deal with, and let me tell you I'm a layer. OK,
so you can hire people to look after your lawyers and
accountants for you, but who are those people going to be? Just
more lawyers and accountants. And you know, we don't even want
the responsibility for it all. It's too much.
"So then I have this idea. It's like you buy a big
property, and then you sell on what you don't want. That way
you get what you want, and a lot of other people get what they
want, only they get it through you, and they feel a little
obligated to you, and they remember who they got it through
because they sign a piece of paper which says how obligated
they feel to you. And money flows back to pay for our Mr Odin's
very, very, very expensive private medical care.
"So we don't have much, Mr Gently. One or two modestly
nice houses. One or two modestly nice cars. We have a very nice
life. Very, very nice indeed. We don't need much because
anything we need is always made available to us, it's taken
care of. All we demanded, and it was a very reasonable demand
in the circumstances, was that we didn't want to know any more
about it. We take our modest requirements and we bow out. We
want nothing more than absolute peace and absolute quiet, and a
nice life because Cynthia's sometimes a little nervous. OK.
"And then what happens this morning? Right on our own
doorstep. Pow. It's disgusting. I mean it is really a
disgusting little number. And you know how it happened?
"Here's how it happened. It's our friend Mr Rag again, and
he's tried to be a clever tricky little voodoo lawyer. It's so
pathetic. He has fun trying to waste my time with all his
little tricks and games and run-arounds, and then he tries to
faze me by presenting me with a bill for his time. That's
nothing. It's work creation. All lawyers do it. OK. So I say,
I'll take your bill. I'll take it, I don't care what it is. You
give me your bill and I'll see it's taken care of. It's OK. So
he gives it to me.
"It's only later I see it's got this tricky kind of
subtotal thing in it. So what? He's trying to be clever. He's
given me a hot potato. Listen, the record business is full of
hot potatoes. You just get them taken care of. There are always
people happy to take care of things for you when they want to
make their way up the ladder. If they're worthy of their place
on the ladder, well, they'll get it taken care of in return.
You get a hot potato, you pass it on. I passed it on. Listen,
there were a lot of people who are very happy to get
things taken care of for me. Hey, you know? It was really funny
seeing how far and how fast that particular potato got passed
on. That told me a lot about who was bright and who was not.
But then it lands up in my back garden, and that's a penalty
clause job I'm afraid. The Woodshead stuff is a very
expensive little number, and I think your clients may have
blown it on that particular score. We have the whip hand here.
We can just cancel this whole thing. Believe me, I have
everything I could possibly want now.
"But listen, Mr Gently. I think you understand my
position. We've been pretty frank with each other and I've felt
good about that. There are certain sensitivities involved, of
course, and I'm also in a position to be able to make a lot of
things happen. So perhaps we can come to any one of a number of
possible accommodations. Anything you want, Mr Gently, it can
be made to happen."
"Just to see you dead, Mr Draycott," said Dirk Gently,
"just to see you dead."
"Well fuck you, too."
Dirk Gently turned and left the room and went to tell his
new client that he thought they might have a problem.

Chapter 31

A tittle while later a dark-blue BMVV pulled quietly nway
fran the otherwise deserted forecourt of St Pancras stadon and
moved off up the quiet streets.
Somewhat dejected, Dirk Gently put on his hat and left his
newly acquired and newly relinquished client who said that he
wished to be alone now and maybe turn into a rat or something
like some other people he could mention.
He closed the great doors behind him and walked slowly out
on to the balcony overlooking the great vaulted hall of gods
and heroes, Valhalla. He arrived just as the last few
stragglers of the revels were fading away, presumably to emerge
at the same moment in the great vaulted train shed of St
Pancras station. He stayed staring for a while at the empty
hall, in which the bonfires now were just fading embers.
It then took the very slightest flicker of his head for
him to perform the same transition himself, and he found
himself standing in a gusty and dishevelled corridor of the
empty Midland Grand Hotel. Out in the great dark concourse of
St Pancras station he saw again the last stragglers from
Valhalla shuffling away and out into the cold streets of London
to find benches that were designed not to be slept on, and to
try to sleep on them.
He sighed and tried to find his way out of the derelict
hotel, a task that proved more difficult than he anticipated,
as immense and as dark and as labyrinthine as it was. He found
at last the great winding gothic staircase which led all the
way down to the huge arches of the entrance lobby, decorated
with carvings of dragons and griffins and heavy ornamental
ironwork. The main front entrance was locked as it had been for
years, and eventually Dirk found his way down a side corridor
to an exit manned by a great sweaty splodge of a man who
guarded it at night. He demanded to know how Dirk had gained
entrance to the hotel and refused to be satisfied by any of his
explanations. In the end he had simply to allow Dirk to leave,
since there was little else he could do.
Dirk crossed from this entrance to the entrance into the
station booking hall, and then into the station itself. For a
while he simply stood there looking around, and then he left
via the main station entrance, and descended the steps which
led down on to the St Pancras Road. As he emerged on to the
street he was so surprised not to be instantly swooped upon by
a passing eagle that he tripped and stumbled and was run over
by the first of the early morning's motorcycle couriers.

Chapter 32

With a huge crash, Thor surged through the wall at the far
end of the great hall of Valhalla and stood ready to proclaim
to the assembled gods and heroes that he had finally managed to
break through to Norway and had found a copy of the contract
Odin had signed buried deep in the side of a mountain, but he
couldn't because they'd all gone and there was no one there.
"There's no one here," he said to Kate, releasing her from
his huge grip, "they've all gone."
He slumped in disappointment.
"Wh - " said Kate.
"We'll try the old man's chambers," said Thor and hurled
his hammer up to the balcony, with themselves in tow.
He stalked through the great chambers, ignoring Kate's
pleas, protests and general abuse.
He wasn't there.
"He's here somewhere," said Thor angrily, trailing his
hammer behind him.
"We'll go through the world divide," he said, and took
hold of Kate again. They flicked themselves through.
They were in a large bedroom suite in the hotel.
Litter and scraps of rotting carpet covered the floors,
the windows were grimy with years of neglect. Pigeon droppings
were everywhere, and the peeling paintwork made it look as if
several small families of starfish had exploded on the walls.
Thene was an abandoned trolleybed in the middle of the
floor in which an old man lay in beautifully laundered linen,
weeping from his one remaining eye.
"I found the contract, you bastard," raged Thor, waving it
at him. "I found the deal you did. You sold all our power
to...to a lawyer and a...an advertiser and, and all sorts of
other people. You stole our power! You couldn't steal all of
mine because I'm too strong, but you kept me bewildered and
confused, and made bad things happen every time I got angry.
You prevented me getting back home to Norway by every method
you could, because you knew I'd find this! You and that poison
dwarf Toe Rag. You've been abusing and humiliating me for
years, and - "
"Yes, yes, we know all that," said Odin.
"Well...Good!"
"Thor - " said Kate.
"Well I've shaken all that off now!" shouted Thor.
"Yes, I see - "
"I went somewhere I could get good and angry in pence,
when I knew you'd be otherwise occupied and expecting me to be
here, and I had a hell of a good shout and blew things up a
bit, and I'm all right now! And I'm going to tear this up for a
start!"
He ripped right through the contract, threw the pieces in
the air and incinerated them with a look.
"Thor - " said Kate.
"And I'm going to put right all the things you made happen
so I'd be afraid of getting angry. The poor girl at the airline
check-in desk that got turned into a drink machine. Woof! Wham!
She's back! The jet fighter that tried to shoot me down when I
was flying to Norway! Woof! Wham! It's back! See, I'm back in
control of myself!"
"What jet fighter?" asked Kate. "You haven't told me about
a jet fighter."
"It tried to shoot me down over the North Sea. We had a
scrap and in the heat of the moment I, well, I turned it into
an eagle, and it's been bothering me ever since. So now that's
dealt with. Don't look at me like that. I did what I could. I
took care of his wife by fixing one of those lottery things.
Look," he added angrily, "all this has been very difficult
for me, you know. All right. What else?"
"My table lamp," said Kate quietly.
"And Kate's table lamp! It shall be a small kitten no
more! Woof! Wham! Thor speaks and it is so! What was that
noise?"
A ruddy glow was spreading across the London skyline.
Thor, I think there's something wrong with your father."
"I should bloody well hope so. Oh. What's wrong? Father?
Are you all right?"
"I have been so very, very foolish and unwise," wept Odin,
"I have been so wicked and evil, and - "
"Yes, well that's what I think, too," said Thor and sat on
the cnd of his bed. "So what are we going to do?"
"I don't think I could live without my linen, and my
Sister Bailey, and... It's been so, so, so long, and I'm so, so
old. Toe Rag said I should kill you, but I...I would rather
have killed myself. Oh, Thor..."
"Oh," said Thor. "I see. Well. I don't know what to do
now. Blast. Blast everything."
"Thor -"
"Yes, yes, what is it?"
"Thor, it's very simple what you do about your father and
the Woodshead," said Kate.
"Oh yes? What then?"
"I'll tell you on one condition."
"Oh really? And what's that?"
"That you tell me how many stones there are in Wales."
"What!" exclaimed Thor in outrage. "Away from me! That's
years of my life you're talking about!"
Kate shrugged.
"No!" said Thor. "Anything but that! Anyway, he added
sullenly, "I told you."
"No you didn't."
"Yes I did. I said I lost count somewhere in
Mid-Glamorgan. Well, I was hardly going to start again, was I?
Think, girl, think!

Chapter 33

Beating a path through the difficult territory to the
north-east of Valhalla - a network of paths that seemed to lead
only to other paths and then back to the first paths again for
another try - went two figures, one a big, stupid, violent
creature with green eyes and a scythe which hung from its belt
and often seriously impeded its progress, the other a small
crazed creature who clung on to the back of the bigger one,
manically urging him on white actuaily impeding his progress
still further.
They attained at last a long, low, smelly building into
which they hurried shouting for horses. The old stable master
came forward, recognised them and, having heard already of
their disgrace, was at first disinclined to help them on their
way. 'The scythe flashed through the air and the stable
master's head started upwards in surprise while his body took
an affronted step backwards, swayed uncertainly, and then for
lack of any further instructions to the contrary keeled over
backwards in its own time. His head bounded into the hay.
His assailants hurriedly lashed up two horses to a cart
and clattered away out of the stable yard and along the broader
thoroughfare which led upwards to the north.
They made rapid progress up the road for a mile, Toe Rag
urging the horses on frantically with a long and cruel whip.
After a few minutes, however, the horses began to slow down and
to look about them uneasily. Toe Rag lashed them all the
harder, but they became more anxious still then suddenly lost
all control and reared in terror, turning over the cart and
tipping its occupants out on the ground, from which they
instantly sprang up in a rage.
Toe Rag screamed at the terrified horses and then, out of
the corner of his eye, caught sight of what had so disturbed
them.
It wasn't so terrifying. It was just a large, white, metal
box, upturned on a pile of rubbish by the roadside and rattling
itself.
The horses were rearing and trying to bolt away from the
big white rattling thing but they were impossibly entangled in
their traces. They were only working themselves up into a
thrashing lather of panic. Toe Rag quickly realised that there
would be no calming them until the box was dealt with.
"Whatever it is," he screeched at the green-eyed creature,
"kill it!"
Green-eye unhooked his scythe from his belt once more and
clambered up the pile of rubbish to where the box was rattling.
He kicked it and it only rattled the more. He got his foot
behind it and with a heavy thrust shoved it away down the heap.
The big white box slithered a foot or so then turned over and
toppled to the ground. It rested there for a moment and then a
door, finally freed, flew open. The horses screamed in fear.
Toe Rag and his green-eyed thug approached the thing with
worried curiosity, then staggered back in horror as a great and
powerful new god erupted from its innards.

Chapter 34

The following afternoon, at a comfortable distance from
alI these events, set at a comfortable distance from a well-
proportioned window through which the afternoon light was
streaming, lay an elderly one-eyed man in a white bed. A
newspaper sat like a half-collapsed tent on the floor, where it
had been hurled two minutes before.
The man was awake but not glad to be. His exquisitely
frail hands lay slightly curled on the pure white linen sheets
and quivered very faintly.
His name was variously given as Mr Odwin, or Wodin, or
Odin. He was - is - a god, and furthermore he was a confused
and startled god.
He was confused and startled because of the report he had
just been reading on the front page of the newspaper, which was
that another god had been cutting loose and making a nuisance
of himself. It didn't say so in so many words of course, it
merely described what had happened last night when a missing
jet fighter aircraft had mysteriously erupted under full power
from out of a house in North London into which it could not
conceivably have been thought to have fitted. It had instantly
lost its wings and gone into a screaming dive and crashed and
exploded in a main road. The pilot had managed to eject during
the few seconds he had had in the air, and had landed, shaken,
bruised, but otherwise unharmed, and babbling about strange men
with hammers flying over the North Sea.
Luckily, because of the time at which the inexplicable
disaster had occurred, the roads were almost deserted, and
apart from massive damage to property, the only fatalities to
have occurred were the as yet unidentified occupants of a car
which was thought to have been possibly a BMW and possibly
blue, though because of the rather extreme nature of the
accidcnt it was rather hard to tell.
He was very, very tired and did not want to think about
it, did not want to think about last night, did not want to
think of anything other than linen sheets and how wonderful it
was when Sister Bailey patted them down around him as she had
just now, just five minutes ago, and again just ten minutes
before that.
The American girl, Kate something, came into his room. He
wished she would just let him sleep. She was going on about
something being all fixed up. She congratulated him on having
extremely high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and a
very dicky heart, as a consequence of which the hospital would
be very glad to accept him as a lifelong patient in return for
his entire estate. They didn't even care to know what his
estate was worth, because it would clearly be sufficient to
cover a stay as brief as his was likely to be.
She seemed to expect him to be pleased, so he nodded
amiably, thanked her vaguely and drifted, drifted happily off
to sleep.

Chapter 35

The same afternoon Dirk Gently awake, also in hospital,
suffering from mild concussion, scrapes and bruises and a
broken leg. He had had the greatest difficulty in explaining,
on admittance, that most of his injuries had been caused by a
small boy and an eagle, and that really, being run over by a
motorcycle courier was a relatively restful experience since it
mostly involved lying down a lot and not being swooped on every
two minutes.
He was kept under sedation - in other words, he slept -
for most of the morning, suffering terrible dreams in which Toe
Rag and a green-eyed, scythe-bearing giant made their escape to
the north-east from Valhalla, where they were unexpectedly
accosted and consumed by a newly created, immense Guilt God
which had finally escaped from what looked suspiciously like an
upturned refrigerator on a skip.
He was relieved to be woken at last from this by a cheery,
"Oh it's you, is it? You nicked my book."
He opened his eyes and was greeted by the sight of Sally
Mills, the girl he had been violently accosted by the previous
day in the cafи, for no better reason than that he had, prior
to nicking her book, nicked her coffee.
"Well, I'm glad to see you took my advice and came in to
have your nose properly attended to," she said as she fussed
around him. "Pretty roundabout way you seem to have taken but
you're here and that's the main thing. You caught up with the
girl you were interested in did you? Oddly enough, you're in
the very bed that she was in. If you see her again, perhaps you
could give her this pizza which she arranged to have delivered
before checking herself out. It's all cold now, but the courier
did insist that she was very adamant it should be delivered.
"I don't mind you nicking the book, really, though. I
don't know why I buy them really, they're not very good, only
everyone always does, don't they? Somebody told me there's a
rumour he had entered into a pact with the devil or something.
I think that's nonsense, though I did hear another story about
him which I much preferred. Apparently he's always having these
mysterious deliveries of chickens to his hotel rooms, and no
one dares to ask why or even guess what it is he wants them
for, because nobody ever sees a single scrap of them again.
Well, I met somebody who knows exactly what he wants them for.
The somebody I met once had the job of secretly smuggling the
chickens straight back out of his rooms again. What Howard Belt
gets out of it is a reputation for being a very strange and
demonic man and everybody buys his books. Nice work if you can
get it is what I say. Anyway, I expect you don't want to have
me nattering to you alt afternoon, and even if you do I've got
better things to do. Sister says you'll probably be discharged
this evening so you can go to your own home and sleep in your
own bed, which I'm sure you'll much prefer. Anyway, hope you
feel better, here's a couple of newspapers."
Dirk took the papers, glad to be left alone at last.
He first turned to see what The Great Zaganza had to say
about his day. The Great Zaganza said, "You are very fat and
stupid and persistently wear a ridiculous hat which you should
be ashamed of."
He grunted slightly to himself about this, and turned to
the horoscope in the other paper.
It said, "Today is a day to enjoy home comforts."
Yes, he thought, he would be glad to get back home. He was
still strangely relieved about getting rid of his old fridge
looked forwand to enjoying a new phase of fridge ownership with
the spanking new model currently sitting in his kitchen at
home.
Then was the eagle to think about, but he would worry
about that later, when he got home.
He turned to the front page to see if there was any
interesting news.
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