In retrospect, the seventeenth death may well have been the most significant. At the time, however, Mr Fishy's death was mourned only by his twelve-year-old owner, Suzanne Fry, and - very briefly - by the fellow inhabitants of his large, well-kept fish bowl.
The obituaries following the eighteenth and nineteenth deaths were highlighted in Dirk Gently's newspaper in green ink.
Dirk Gently, holistic private detective and highly regarded loan defaulter, was frustrated. The car he had chosen to follow home this evening was not taking him home. It wasn't, as far as he could tell, taking him to anybody's home. Instead, the driver was demonstrating the same lack of taste he or she had evinced while buying the bright orange monstrosity in the first place, and was driving around in an erratic manner calculated to set Dirk's teeth on edge.
It was one thing, he mused to himself, to own a car like that. It was another to drive it in public. But to drive it nowhere in particular, on a night Dirk was in quite a hurry to get home, that was - he grasped for a word to express his utter contempt at such a course of action. That was another thing entirely.
Abruptly, the car stopped outside a particularly non-descript house. Dirk brought his car to a halt behind it.
A tall, thin man with unnecessarily tidy hair got out of the car. Dirk got out of his.
The man walked up the driveway and, after fiddling with his keys, into the house. Dirk followed him, taking a deep breath.
"What are you doing here?" said Dirk angrily, releasing the breath in a burst of righteous indignation. "And today, of all days!"
The man cringed. "J-Judith called. Sh-she said-"
"Hah!" Dirk accompanied this with a swoosh of his coat. Taking the offensive, he felt, was not to be done half-heartedly. "Judith said, did she? What, pray tell, did she say?"
"She- That I should be here when the police- When they came round. I should be here."
Dirk kept silent. Only an amateur would reveal the depths of his ignorance at this point in the proceedings. With a sniff, he attempted to convey his frustration at Judith's meddling in the whole affair.
He picked a door at random, trusting to the fundamental interconnectedness of all things that if it turned out to be a cupboard, it would at least be an interesting cupboard, and sneered at the man. "I suppose you might as well wait out here for the police." He pushed open the door and strode purposefully through into what was, in fact, a kitchen.
The twentieth death was when things started getting personal.
The kitchen had been lovingly decorated by someone whose tastes leant a little, a tad, a soupcon towards the twee. Tastefully loin-clothed cherubs beamed at each other across the pale pink curtains. Clearly never taken down and used for anything as uncouth as bearing food, plates depicting countrysides long since paved over adorned the walls. In one corner, tropical fish flitted around their large, well-kept bowl, swimming in and out of a to-scale reproduction of the Houses of Parliament. One got the impression that if it had contained to-scale MPs, they would have worn bow ties and woollen jumpers and only ever turned up to the debates on buggery. Even the corpse lying on the yellow and pink floor tiles was bleeding in a twee manner.
Dirk was not impressed.
If he wasn't mistaken, which he felt unlikely to be, then the corpse on the floor was Derek Fry, head of Small Fry Fish Mongers. That would make this the third murder of a prominent fish merchant in the last week. Even the police should have begun to spot a pattern. Had Dirk been behind the murders - a charge that if posed, he would not dignify with a response - he liked to think he could have managed to be a bit more circumspect about his motives.
Really. A spate of murders which just happened to cripple the management of the largest suppliers of Buruburu fish in the British Isles. The robbery of a small graveyard in Wiltshire. The abduction of the curate of the Pitt Rivers Museum of Anthropology. You didn't have to have a nose as imposing as Dirk Gently's to smell the tell-tale stench of imminent zombies.
"Zombies!" no one uttered scornfully, much to Dirk's disappointment. He wished for a moment he'd invited the tall, trembling man into the room with him. Still, he saw no need to waste a good feedline just because there wasn't anybody about with the good manners to deliver it.
He turned to face the hypothetical interruption with hypothetical irritation. "Zombies. Reanimated corpses."
He put his hat down on a nearby stool and cocked his head to one side, listening to the dramatically necessary response.
"Are you calling me a liar?" Dirk growled.
Had anyone else been in the room at the time, he was certain they would have hurriedly assured him that no, no one thought he was lying as such, but...
"If you called me a liar," said Dirk, "I'd have to challenge you to a duel. And then I'd have to win, and that would be tedious."
Sergeant Gilks chose this moment to enter the room. Dirk was disappointed, but not entirely surprised. It was that sort of day.
The first sixteen undeaths were accompanied by a few lacklustre shouts of "Dear gods! The horror! The horror!" coerced out of an increasingly bored ex-curate of the Pitt Rivers Museum. He became mildly less bored shortly before becoming the twenty-first death, when the zombies ate him.
"Mr Gently," Gilks said, his voice dripping with the sort of contempt Dirk personally reserved for clients who didn't understand the true meaning of 'non' as it applied to his non-negotiable expenses. "I had hoped you wouldn't be involved."
Dirk affected nonchalance. "I was visiting Derek for a game of squash."
The policeman did not answer him.
"Terrible, terrible tragedy."
Still no answer.
"He was good with the old backhand, our Derek."
Gilks glared at him. "Are you satisfied that your -" he paused for a moment, funnelling all the disbelief he could muster into his next words "- friend will no longer be joining you for an enjoyable evening of squash? Or tennis, or badminton or any other racquet sport?"
Dirk doffed his hat to the policeman. The effect was spoiled somewhat by his head's lack of hat, which was still sitting on top of a particularly twee kitchen stool. "Of course, my dear Gilks, of course." He reached forward to pick up his hat. "In one moment, my most beloved keeper of the peace, I shall depart, never to trouble you again."
"If," Gilks said, glaring suspiciously at the hat, "only."
"Gilks, my dank and dreary friend," Dirk said, waving his arms in an expansive gesture designed to indicate the true insincerity of his affection for the man, which just happened to knock a gnome-shaped salt cellar into his hat while placing Dirk's girth between this action and Gilks' line of sight. "Gilks, how can you doubt me?"
"Put it back."
Dirk was hurt. Truly, deeply hurt. His face, normally more adept at indicating polite confusion to angry men from the bailiffs, creased with, well, hurt.
Sighing at the injustice of a world in which such good, kind and decent men as he could come under suspicion from such ignorant oafs as Gilks, Dirk put the salt cellar back.
"And the other one."
Dirk put the pepper pot back.
Dirk opened his coat pocket, picked out a zebra fish and flicked it back into the fish bowl. It landed with a splash, then began to explore the Houses of Parliament again, apparently unhurt by its recent outing. Dirk sighed again, helpless against the forces of this oh so cruel and faithless world. "Satisfied, Gilks?"
"Thank you, Mr Gently. Now please, get out of my sight."
Dirk stalked out of the room, wrapping his affronted dignity around him like a moth-eaten coat with two Buruburu fish in each pocket.
The first sixteen un-undeaths came after some debate in a nearby village hall about the ethics of commandeering pitchforks and flaming torches. It was decided by a show of hands that ethics were all well and good, but under the circumstances probably less useful than pitchforks.
The next four deaths were of the fish in Dirk's coat pockets.
Dirk returned home to find Gilks sitting outside his flat. Quickly, he ran through the list of deities he might have offended recently. It seemed unlikely that the god of pizza delivery and unpaid income tax was having a slow enough day to bother with the likes of him. Still, he made a mental note to apologise to the next spotty-faced youth he knocked off a Dominos-owned motorcycle.
"Gilks," he said.
"Mr Gently," Gilks replied.
"I expect you'd like to monologue at me, Gilks." He opened the door to his flat and ushered the policeman inside. "Nothing could delight me more, I assure you, than to listen to your charming witticisms and bon mots on the meaning of life. Nothing at all." He shut the door behind them. "Nothing! But would you mind awfully, my good, dear friend, if I attend to a few minor household matters while I listen - attentively, I assure you - to your every word?"
Gilks glanced at the mounds of empty and half-empty pizza boxes lining the floors and walls of the hallway. He sniffed, taking in the delicate odour of rotting tea from the cups sitting precariously on many of these abandoned boxes. Finally, he looked down at the glass of wine he had almost stepped on when entering. "I didn't know wine could go mouldy," he said, which Dirk took as assent.
"I realise, Mr Gently, that you are a very clever man."
Dirk wandered into the kitchen to glare at the fridge.
"So I asked myself, why would a very clever man try to play a trick on me he already knows won't work?"
The fridge glared back.
"Perhaps, I said to myself, because he knows I'll catch him. And he hopes that when I catch him, and see through his petty deception, I'll think that I have seen through all there is to see."
The carton of milk sitting on top of the fridge began to glare at him, too.
"So, Mr Gently, why did you abduct four Buruburu fish from the deceased's home?"
"You're not going to like it," Dirk said, stalling for time.
"Of that," Gilks said, "I was already aware."
"You're not going to believe why, either."
There was a stony silence.
"Zombies!" Gilks uttered scornfully. Dirk felt this was too little, too late.
When he and Gilks finally got to the scene of the crime, there wasn't a lot of crime left. All they had to do was repossess a pitchfork, put out a few fires, calm down the remaining villagers and remove the decomposing fish from Dirk's pocket to bury them in consecrated ground.
On reflection, Dirk blamed Gilks entirely.
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