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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 20 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 caf, 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 caf'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 caf'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 caf.


"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.


"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 cafs. 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 caf.


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 9 | The Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul | Chapter 11



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