One of those nasty hushes had descended on the place, a sort of missile crisis sort of hush.
Even the evil-looking bird perched on a rod in the bar had stopped screeching out the names and addresses of local contract killers, which was a service it provided for free.
All eyes were on Ford Prefect. Some of them were on stalks.
The particular way in which he was choosing to dice recklessly with death today was by trying to pay for a drinks bill the size of a small defence budget with an American Express Card, which was not acceptable anywhere in the known Universe.
``What are you worried about?'' he asked in a cheery kind of voice. ``The expiration date? Have you guys never heard of Neo-Relativity out here? There's whole new areas of physics which can take care of this sort of thing. Time dilation effects, temporal relastatics ...''
``We are not worried about the expiration date,'' said the man to whom he addressed these remarks, who was a dangerous barman in a dangerous city. His voice was a low soft purr, like the low soft purr made by the opening of an ICBM silo. A hand like a side of meat tapped on the bar top, lightly denting it.
``Well, that's good then,'' said Ford, packing his satchel and preparing to leave.
The tapping finger reached out and rested lightly on the shoulder of Ford Prefect. It prevented him from leaving.
Although the finger was attached to a slablike hand, and the hand was attached to a clublike forearm, the forearm wasn't attached to anything at all, except in the metaphorical sense that it was attached by a fierce doglike loyalty to the bar which was its home. It had previously been more conventionally attached to the original owner of the bar, who on his deathbed had unexpectedly bequeathed it to medical science. Medical science had decided they didn't like the look of it and had bequeathed it right back to the Old Pink Dog Bar.
The new barman didn't believe in the supernatural or poltergeists or anything kooky like that, he just knew an useful ally when he saw one. The hand sat on the bar. It took orders, it served drinks, it dealt murderously with people who behaved as if they wanted to be murdered. Ford Prefect sat still.
``We are not worried about the expiration date,'' repeated the barman, satisfied that he now had Ford Prefect's full attention. ``We are worried about the entire piece of plastic.''
``What?'' said Ford. He seemed a little taken aback.
``This,'' said the barman, holding out the card as if it was a small fish whose soul had three weeks earlier winged its way to the Land Where Fish are Eternally Blessed, ``we don't accept it.''
Ford wondered briefly whether to raise the fact that he didn't have any other means of payment on him, but decided for the moment to soldier on. The disembodied hand was now grasping his shoulder lightly but firmly between its finger and thumb.
``But you don't understand,'' said Ford, his expression slowly ripening from a little taken abackness into rank incredulity. ``This is the American Express Card. It is the finest way of settling bills known to man. Haven't you read their junk mail?''
The cheery quality of Ford's voice was beginning to grate on the barman's ears. It sounded like someone relentlessly playing the kazoo during one of the more sombre passages of a War Requiem.
One of the bones in Ford's shoulder began to grate against another one of the bones in his shoulder in a way which suggested that the hand had learnt the principles of pain from a highly skilled chiropracter. He hoped he could get this business settled before the hand started to grate one of the bones in his shoulder against any of the bones in different parts of his body. Luckily, the shoulder it was holding was not the one he had his satchel slung over.
The barman slid the card back across the bar at Ford.
``We have never,'' he said with muted savagery, ``heard of this thing.''
This was hardly surprising.
Ford had only acquired it through a serious computer error towards the end of the fifteen years' sojourn he had spent on the planet Earth. Exactly how serious, the American Express Company had got to know very rapidly, and the increasingly strident and panic-stricken demands of its debt collection department were only silenced by the unexpected demolition of the entire planet by the Vogons to make way for a new hyperspace bypass.
He had kept it ever since because he found it useful to carry a form of currency that no one would accept.
``Credit?'' he said. ``Aaaargggh ...''
These two words were usually coupled together in the Old Pink Dog Bar.
``I thought,'' gasped Ford, ``that this was meant to be a class establishment ...''
He glanced around at the motley collection of thugs, pimps and record company executives that skulked on the edges of the dim pools of light with which the dark shadows of the bar's inner recesses were pitted. They were all very deliberately looking in any direction but his now, carefully picking up the threads of their former conversations about murders, drug rings and music publishing deals. They knew what would happen now and didn't want to watch in case it put them off their drinks.
``You gonna die, boy,'' the barman murmured quietly at Ford Prefect, and the evidence was on his side. The bar used to have one of those signs hanging up which said, ``Please don't ask for credit as a punch in the mouth often offends'', but in the interest of strict accuracy this was altered to, ``Please don't ask for credit because having your throat torn out by a savage bird while a disembodied hand smashes your head against the bar often offends''. However, this made an unreadable mess of the notice, and anyway didn't have the same ring to it, so it was taken down again. It was felt that the story would get about of its own accord, and it had.
``Lemme look at the bill again,'' said Ford. He picked it up and studied it thoughtfully under the malevolent gaze of the barman, and the equally malevolent gaze of the bird, which was currently gouging great furrows in the bar top with its talons.
It was a rather lengthy piece of paper.
At the bottom of it was a number which looked like one of those serial numbers you find on the underside of stereo sets which always takes so long to copy on to the registration form. He had, after all, been in the bar all day, he had been drinking a lot of stuff with bubbles in it, and he had bought an awful lot of rounds for all the pimps, thugs and record executives who suddenly couldn't remember who he was.
He cleared his throat rather quietly and patted his pockets. There was, as he knew, nothing in them. He rested his left hand lightly but firmly on the half-opened flap of his satchel. The disembodied hand renewed its pressure on his right shoulder.
``You see,'' said the barman, and his face seemed to wobble evilly in front of Ford's, ``I have a reputation to think of. You see that, don't you?''
This is it, thought Ford. There was nothing else for it. He had obeyed the rules, he had made a bona fide attempt to pay his bill, it had been rejected. He was now in danger of his life.
``Well,'' he said quietly, ``if it's your reputation ...''
With a sudden flash of speed he opened his satchel and slapped down on the bar top his copy of the Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the official card which said that he was a field researcher for the Guide and absolutely not allowed to do what he was now doing.
``Want a write-up?''
The barman's face stopped in mid-wobble. The bird's talons stopped in mid-furrow. The hand slowly released its grip.
``That,'' said the barman in a barely audible whisper, from between dry lips, ``will do nicely, sir.''