Going Postal

Page 11

'And was it?' said Lord Vetinari, raising an eyebrow. 'Was what?'

'Was it seen again?' There was a sudden hunted look in Mr Horsefry's eyes. 'What? How would I know?'

'Oh, I see,' said Lord Vetinari. 'It was a joke. Ah, well.' He shuffled the papers. 'Unfortunately the Post Office came to be seen not as a system for moving the mail efficiently, to the benefit and profit of all, but as a money box. And so it collapsed, losing both mail and money. A lesson for us all, perhaps. Anyway, I have high hopes of Mr Lipwig, a young man full of fresh ideas. A good head for heights, too, although I imagine he will not be climbing any towers.'

'I do hope this resurrection will not prove to be a drain on our taxes,' said Mr Slant. 'I assure you, Mr Slant, that apart from the modest sum necessary to, as it were, prime the pump, the postal service will be self-supporting as, indeed, it used to be. We cannot have a drag on the public purse, can we? And now, gentlemen, I am conscious that I am keeping you from your very important business. I do trust that the Trunk will be back in commission very shortly' As they stood up, Reacher Gilt leaned across the table and said: 'May I congratulate you, my lord?'

'I am delighted that you feel inclined to congratulate me on anything, Mr Gilt,' said Vetinari. 'To

what do we owe this unique occurrence?'

'This, my lord,' said Gilt, gesturing to the little side table on which had been set the rough-hewn piece of stone. 'Is this not an original Hnaflbaflsniflwhifltafl slab? Llamedos bluestone, isn't it? And the pieces look like basalt, which is the very devil to carve. A valuable antique, I think.'

'It was a present to me from the Low King of the Dwarfs,' said Vetinari. 'It is, indeed, very old.'

'And you have a game in progress, I see. You're playing the dwarf side, yes?'

'Yes. I play by clacks against an old friend in Uberwald,' said Vetinari. 'Happily for me, your breakdown yesterday has given me an extra day to think of my next move.' Their eyes met. Reacher Gilt laughed hugely. Vetinari smiled. The other men, who badly needed to laugh, laughed too. See, we're all friends, we're like colleagues really, nothing bad is going to happen. The laughter died away, a little uneasily. Gilt and Vetinari maintained smiles, maintained eye contact. 'We should play a game,' said Gilt. 'I have a rather nice board myself. I play the troll side, for preference.'

'Ruthless, initially outnumbered, inevitably defeated in the hands of the careless player?' said Vetinari. 'Indeed. Just as the dwarfs rely on guile, feint and swift changes of position. A man can learn all of an opponent's weaknesses on that board,' said Gilt. 'Really?' said Vetinari, raising his eyebrows. 'Should he not be trying to learn his own?'

'Oh, that's just Thud! That's easy!' yapped a voice. Both men turned to look at Horsefry, who had been made perky by sheer relief. 'I used to play it when I was a kid,' he burbled. 'It's boring. The dwarfs always win!' Gilt and Vetinari shared a look. It said: while I loathe you and every aspect of your personal philosophy to a depth unplumbable by any line, I'll credit you at least with not being Crispin Horsefry. 'Appearances are deceptive, Crispin,' said Gilt jovially. 'A troll player need never lose, if he puts his mind to it.'

'I know I once got a dwarf stuck up my nose and Mummy had to get it out with a hairpin,' said Horsefry, as if this was a source of immense pride. Gilt put his arm round the man's shoulders. 'That's very interesting, Crispin,' he said. 'Do you think it's likely to happen again?' Vetinari stood at the window after they had left, watching the city below. After a few minutes, Drumknott drifted in. 'There was a brief exchange in the ante-room, my lord,' he said. Vetinari didn't turn round, but held up a hand. 'Let me see . . . I imagine one of them started saying something like “Do you think he—” and Slant very quickly shushed him? Mr Horsefry, I suspect.' Drumknott glanced at the paper in his hand. 'Almost to the word, my lord.'

'It takes no great leap of the imagination,' sighed Lord Vetinari. 'Dear Mr Slant. He's so . . . dependable. Sometimes I really think that if he was not already a zombie it would be necessary to have him turned into one.'

'Shall I order a Number One Investigation on Mr Gilt, my lord?'

'Good heavens, no. He is far too clever. Order it on Mr Horsefry.'

'Really, sir? But you did say yesterday that you believed him to be no more than a greedy fool.' A nervous fool, which is useful. He's a venal coward and a glutton. I've watched him sit down to a meal of pot au feu with white beans, and that was an impressive sight, Drumknott, which I will

not easily forget. The sauce went everywhere. Those pink shirts he wears cost more than a hundred dollars, too. Oh, he acquires other people's money, in a safe and secret and not very clever way. Send . . . yes, send clerk Brian.'

'Brian, sir?' said Drumknott. 'Are you sure? He's wonderful at devices, but quite inept on the street. He'll be seen.'

'Yes, Drumknott. I know. I would like Mr Horsefry to become a little . . . more nervous.'

'Ah, I see, sir.' Vetinari turned back to the window. 'Tell me, Drumknott,' he said, 'would you say I'm a tyrant?'

'Most certainly not, my lord,' said Drumknott, tidying the desk. 'But of course that's the problem, is it not? Who will tell the tyrant he is a tyrant?'

'That's a tricky one, my lord, certainly,' said Drumknott, squaring up the files. 'In his Thoughts, which I have always considered fare badly in translation, Bouffant says that intervening in order to prevent a murder is to curtail the freedom of the murderer and yet that freedom, by definition, is natural and universal, without condition,' said Vetinari. 'You may recall his famous dictum: “If any man is not free, then I too am a small pie made of chicken”, which has led to a considerable amount of debate. Thus we might consider, for example, that taking a bottle from a man killing himself with drink is a charitable, nay, praiseworthy act, and yet freedom is curtailed once more. Mr Gilt has studied his Bouffant but, I fear, failed to understand him. Freedom may be mankind's natural state, but so is sitting in a tree eating your dinner while it is still wriggling. On the other hand, Freidegger, in Modal Contextities, claims that all freedom is limited, artificial and therefore illusory, a shared hallucination at best. No sane mortal is truly free, because true freedom is so terrible that only the mad or the divine can face it with open eyes. It overwhelms the soul, very much like the state he elsewhere describes as Vonallesvolkommenunverstandlichdasdaskeit. What position would you take here, Drumknott?'

'I've always thought, my lord, that what the world really needs are filing boxes which are not so flimsy,' said Drumknott, after a moment's pause. 'Hmm,' said Lord Vetinari. 'A point to think about, certainly.' He stopped. On the carven decorations over the room's fireplace a small cherub began to turn, with a faint squeaking noise. Vetinari raised an eyebrow at Drumknott. 'I shall have a word with clerk Brian immediately, my lord,' said the clerk. 'Good. Tell him it's time he got out into the fresh air more.'

Chapter Four

A Sign Dark Clerks and dead Postmasters - A Werewolf in the Watch - The wonderful pin - Mr Lipwig reads letters that are not there — Hugo the hairdresser is surprised — Mr Parker buys fripperies — The Nature of Social Untruths - Princess in the Tower - A man is not dead while his name is still spoken.'

'Ntow Then, Mr Lipvig, What Good Will Violence Do?' Mr Pump rumbled. He rocked on his huge feet as Moist struggled in his grip. Groat and Stanley were huddled at the far end of the locker room. One of Mr Groat's natural remedies was bubbling over on to the floor, where the boards were staining purple. 'They were all accidents, Mr Lipwig! All accidents!' Groat babbled. 'The Watch was all over the place by the fourth one! They were all accidents, they said!'

'Oh, yes!' screamed Moist. 'Four in five weeks, eh? I bet that happens all the time around here! Ye gods, I've been done up good and brown! I'm dead, right? Just not lying down yet! Vetinari? There's a man who knows how to save the price of a rope! I'm done for!'

'You'll feel better for a nice cup o' bismuth and brimstone tea, sir,' Groat quavered. 'I've got the kettle boiling—'

'A cup of tea is not going to be sufficient!' Moist got a grip on himself, or at least began to act as if he had, and took a deep, theatrical breath. 'Okay, okay, Mr Pump, you can let go now.' The golem released his grip. Moist straightened up. 'Well, Mr Groat?' he said. 'Looks like you're genuine after all, then,' the old man said. 'One of the dark clerks wouldn't have gone bursar like that. We thought you was one of his lordship's special gentlemen, see.' Groat fussed around the kettle. 'No offence, but you've got a bit more colour than the average penpusher.'

'Dark clerks?' said Moist, and then recollection dawned. 'Oh . . . do you mean those stocky little men in black suits and bowler hats?'

'The very same. Scholarship boys at the Assassins' Guild, some of 'em. I heard that they can do some nasty things when they've a mind.'

'I thought you called them penpushers?'

'Yeah, but I didn't say where, heehee.' Groat caught Moist's expression and coughed. 'Sorry, didn't mean it, just my little joke. We reckon the last new postmaster we had, Mr Whobblebury, he was a dark clerk. Can't hardly blame him, with a name like that. He was always snooping around.'

'And why do you think that was?' said Moist. 'Well, Mr Mutable, he was the first, decent chap, he fell down into the big hall from the fifth floor, smack, sir, smack on to the marble. Head first. It was a bit . . . splashy, sir.' Moist glanced at Stanley, who was starting to tremble. 'Then there was Mr Sideburn. He fell down the back stairs and broke his neck, sir. Excuse me, sir, it's eleven forty-three.' Groat walked over to the door and opened it, Tiddles walked through, Groat shut the door again. 'At three in the morning, it was. Right down five flights. Broke just about every bone you could break, sir.'

'You mean he was wandering around without a light?'

'Dunno, sir. But I know about the stairs. The stairs have lamps burning all night, sir. Stanley fills them every day, regular as Tiddles.'

'Use those stairs a lot, then, do you?' said Moist. 'Never, sir, except for the lamps. Nearly everywhere on that side is bunged up with mail. But it's a Post Office Regulation, sir.'

'And the next man?' said Moist, a little hoarsely. 'Another accidental fall?'

'Oh, no, sir. Mr Ignavia, that was his name. They said it was his heart. He was just lyin' dead on the fifth floor, dead as a doorknob, face all contorted like he'd seen a ghost. Natural causes, they said. Werrrl, the Watch was all over the place by then, you may depend on it. No one had been near him, they said, and there was not a mark on him. Surprised you didn't know about all this, sir. It was in the paper.' Except you don't get much chance to keep up with the news in a condemned cell, Moist thought. 'Oh yes?' he said. 'And how would they know no one had been near him?' Groat leaned forward and lowered his voice conspiratorially. 'Everyone knows there's a werewolf in the Watch and one of them could bloody nearly smell what colour clothes someone was wearing.'

'A werewolf,' said Moist, flatly. 'Yes. Anyway, the one before him—'

'A werewolf.'

'That's what I said, sir,' said Groat. 'A damn werewolf.'

'Takes all sorts to make a world, sir. Anyway—'

'A werewolf.' Moist awoke from the horror. 'And they don't tell visitors?'

'Now, how'd they do that, sir?' said Groat, in a kindly voice. 'Put it on a sign outside? “Welcome To Ankh-Morpork, We Have A Werewolf”, sir? The Watch's got loads of dwarfs and trolls and a golem - a free golem, savin' your presence, Mr Pump - and a couple of gnomes and a zombie . . . even a Nobbs.'

Tip: You can use left and right keyboard keys to browse between pages.