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95

What Tycienski knew was this: Agata had been sacked from the agency eight months ago. On the phone, however, she had implied that the agency was still employing her.

So maybe she was simply working for a different agency, one which was unknown to Tycienski. He sat in his armchair and tried to imagine this possibility and it was not, in the end, one that he could imagine with any confidence. His agency had a monopoly, exactly the same monopoly which Lidl and Ryanair had acquired when they had been laid on for workers of his class. These shabby giants which had lumbered into the world and dedicated themselves to serving lonely, unwanted masses. There was no other corporate agency in Edinburgh and its environs which would employ a worker like Agata.

Of course, he knew that it happened all the time. Somebody who had been ignominiously fired would return to their CV now liberated from its previously dreary narrative. The blank months or years suddenly afforded an opportunity. The plotter would work late into long nights, setting up fake email addresses from which to send fabricated references. They would fret over sentences such as “her standard of English are most exceptional” until they would at last give up and phone some English boyfriend from several summers ago to proofread everything. Every confidant would have to be daringly trusted – they might appear at the new job a few months later and demand a fee to be kept quiet. Ultimately, though, the plotter would have no option but to entrust their weight to helping hands.

Still, Agata was not this kind of girl. She certainly had the morality to fake references, but not the energy. She was dopey and careless; she had frequently come to work so stoned that she was silently weeping. To Tycienski she had seemed brave, though he had always known that he would eventually grow tired of her. He guessed that there was an uninterrupted line of men running through her past who had all finally grown tired of her.

At work, she was infuriating. She was always reading at the job and nobody could ever totally shock her out of this offensive habit. She would spend twenty minutes in the toilet in the middle of a busy service and when she emerged, to find the supervisor scowling at her, she would gaze over and past his face with bovine incomprehension. Tycienski knew that there was always a book stuffed in her trouser pocket. She stood at coffee machines reading in the faces of her customers, whilst their microfoam was scalded. On the assembly line at the cookie factory, she had stood there reading in the face of her astonished boss, automatically slapping cookies into their boxes and not glancing up if they cracked apart. When she had swept factory floors and hoovered the interiors of trains, there was always somehow a spare hand and a book was always clamped steadily into it. This doesn’t make a good impression, it never makes a good impression, Tycienski had pleaded with her. She had just gazed at him in that bored, uncomprehending way.

And the books? People might have been forgiving if she had been desperately bettering herself. If there was a good story which people could buy into, in which Agata was reading about horse anatomy at every given opportunity to then one day graduate to everybody’s surprise as a veterinary surgeon. But Agata’s books were instead always spurious – the sort of thing which people can immediately see is nonsense.

These books were about primitive peoples. They were typically conspiracy theory investigations, conducted by dishevelled academics who were trying to give new life to their careers after suffering from nervous breakdowns. The books usually described ancient pyramids or miraculously geometrical ley lines. These wondrous phenomena seemed always to have been built by people who had otherwise scarcely mastered herding sheep.

Whenever Tycienski was at last provoked into Googling one of these mysterious pyramids, the first thing which came up was always a website from a load of spoilsports who were insisting that the pyramids were just natural hills. According to Agata though, the ancient people were in communication with benevolent extraterrestrials. She would explain matter-of-factly that most academics never admitted this because they would lose their jobs.

Nonetheless, she had sounded so irritable on the phone. Abrupt, tired, and nervous. She had definitely not been flicking through a book.

“I need to go to the little boys’ room,” declared Ted. He characteristically referred to visiting the toilet as if it was a tremendous, faintly ceremonial event. “Can you pledge that I won’t get shot on the way there?”

All at once, the entire dinner party was reminded that they possessed bladders. From the looks on their faces, it was as if their bladders had given a collective cheer.

“Where is it?” Strathearn wondered. “Oh yes, just along that corridor. Shouldn’t one of us go with him?”

Andrew sat forward, looking very alert. “You have men on that balcony overhead – I can see them there on the laptop.”

He could see no such thing, but the policemen were left speechless. Eventually Beaufort, in a display of outright rudeness, whipped the laptop around and out of everyone’s view. Next, however, the policemen were frantic – the house was toppling around them! With suddenly unseeing eyes, Ted had walked straight past Strathearn, who was meant to be covering the doorway. He was already calling after them, “Off I toddle! Back in a mo!” Upensky could barely contain himself as Pat jumped up with a murmur of apology and padded rapidly after Ted.

“Nobody else!” Upensky’s voice shook; he flushed and shivered with a nauseous anger.

Janet, now awake, rolled her eyes and made a face. So this policeman who had been such a character turned out to be a fusspot as well. They always did, you know. Beside her, her son was still watching the policemen keenly.

Down the corridor, Ted popped into the bathroom. When he emerged, now at peace with the world, he discovered Pat waiting in the corridor. He good-humouredly offered to wait for the little old man, so that they could go back together.

Left alone, Ted gravitated to the window, to see if he could spot any of the policemen who were supposedly crawling about in the undergrowth.

The moon was as round as a shilling and the lawn below was a lake of faerie silver. The wind always boomed and pounced over these lawns, sweeping every tiny grain out of the blades so that the grass was cleaner than astroturf.

A small band of figures were pouring across the lawn, out of the kitchen garden which was obscured behind the bend in the building. There were two young women side by side and, ahead of them, a far older man who was staggering abstractedly. The women were calling after the man and waving their arms. When he turned, the moonlight traced the outline of his jaw and Ted then realised that he was looking down upon Marvin.

The women were gesturing frantically and it appeared that Marvin was required to kneel. He tried to get going again and stagger away but they shouted after him in encouragement. He seemed to concede that it was no good, that he was too dog-tired, and he sank down to kneel with his head lowered.

The first of the women walked purposefully up to him. There was a gigantic, joyous sound like a rocket taking off, which somersaulted over the lawn and the house, and Marvin’s body flopped.

Gunfire now clattered between the buildings. The woman was shooting him methodically, even gratuitously. One in the head, one in the side, another in the side. Marvin flopped and paused and flopped again, a fish on a riverbank.

Pat was at Ted’s side. “I’m finished,” he said meekly.

Ted did not reply.

Pat gazed at him uneasily. “We’d better be back afore we get enta trouble.” He wanted to plant the idea in Ted’s mind that they might like to obtain a bottle of malt from somewhere and smuggle it past the policemen. Yet this was evidently one of those rare, chance occasions when Ted’s instinct for mischief had been disabled.

Walking back down the corridor, Ted scraped against the wall. “Goodness me, I’m going to faint,” he chuckled to himself. “I’m going to make a complete fool out of myself.”

If only he could flush the sight of Marvin’s death out of his brain forever. He was now marching about within his descending faint. He felt as if somebody had inserted a straw into the top of his head and that they were draining him of all sensation. Everybody stared as he crashed through the drawing-room door. He missed his footing and then attempted to land on another, but this lily pad would not take his weight and he dived forward with both hands outstretched, frozen for a distinct, amazing moment before he hit the ground.

Something breathed with gentle firmness and the candle went out.

Tori was shrieking. Andrew was on his feet and he had lunged past Beaufort, snatching away his revolver. The policeman mechanically pursued the hand with the gun in it and when he found the hand and wrapped his own fingers around it, he tried to point the gun towards the floor. Andrew pulled the trigger, firing into the carpet, and Beaufort leapt back, shielding his face with his hands. Andrew laughed harshly and then turned and shot Upensky in the thigh.

Everybody in the room jumped except Upensky. The Chief Inspector spun around and gazed at them with his eyebrows raised, an expression of comical astonishment. He resembled an elderly gentleman in a Carry On film who has gotten his knickers in a twist.

Andrew had also stopped and he could not get started again. Each of the remaining policemen ran to intercept him and each of them grabbed an arm. They were now zigzagging backwards together across the room, with the sofa as their destination. They crashed and sprawled messily.

Ted, rising from the floor, was reminded immediately by these three interlocked bodies of Marvin’s final struggle.

Tori floated in front of Andrew, screeching at him. “Andrew, you’re scaring me. You’re scaring me!”

Though Andrew was now being handcuffed on the sofa, every flutter of air in the room seemed to fall still at his words. “There are no policemen here. There is no helicopter coming. There are no armed police on the way. That laptop is showing stock footage of policemen – if you actually look for one minute, they aren’t even in our house! And these people – yes, him! – are in fancy dress!”

He looked down upon the plastic handcuffs which are worn by strippergrams and waved about at hen parties.

Upensky’s teeth were chattering in pain. The blood from his thigh babbled like the merriest Highland spring. He was hissing instructions at the other two conspirators. He raised his voice frantically, hoarsely. “Kill anyone who leaves this room again. Or someone else can explain to them.” He looked very frightened and for a strange moment, Tori felt instinctively that she wanted to cuddle him.

She then looked around in surprise. Tycienski had already gone. He had probably slipped out from the second that Ted had fainted.

[Next instalment: “Under the Stairs.”]

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