Going Postal

Page 12

'Nobbs? What's a Nobbs?'

'Corporal Nobby Nobbs, sir. Not met him yet? They say he's got an official chitty saying he's human, and who needs one of those, eh? Fortunately there's only one of him so he can't breed. Anyway, we've got a bit of everything, sir. Very cosmopolitan. You don't like werewolves?' They know who you are by your smell, thought Moist. They're as bright as a human and can track you better than any wolf. They can follow a trail that's days old, even if you cover yourself with scent - especially if you cover yourself with scent. Oh, there's ways around, if you know there is going to be a werewolf on your tail. No wonder they caught up with me. There should be a law! 'Not a lot,' he said aloud, and glanced at Stanley again. It was useful to watch Stanley when Groat was talking. Now the boy had his eyes turned up so much that they were practically all whites. 'And Mr Whobblebury?' he said. 'He was investigating for Vetinari, eh? What happened to him?' Stanley was shaking like a bush in a high wind. 'Er, you did get given the big keyring, sir?' Groat enquired, his voice trembling with innocence. 'Yes, of course.'

'I bet there is one key missing,' said Groat. 'The Watch took it. It was the only one. Some doors ought to stay closed, sir. It's all over and done with, sir. Mr Whobblebury died of an industrial accident, they said. Nobody near him. You don't want to go there, sir. Sometimes things get so

broke it's best to walk away, sir.'

'I can't,' said Moist. 'I am the Postmaster General. And this is my building, isn't it? I'll decide where I go, Junior Postman Groat.' Stanley shut his eyes. 'Yes, sir,' said Groat, as if talking to a child. 'But you don't want to go there-, sir.'

'His head was all over the wall!' Stanley quavered. 'Oh dear, now you've set him off, sir,' said Groat, scuttling across to the boy. 'It's all right, lad, I'll just get you your pills—'

'What is the most expensive pin ever made commercially, Stanley?' said Moist quickly. It was like pulling a lever. Stanley's expression went from agonized grief to scholarly cogitation in an instant. 'Commercially? Leaving aside those special pins made for exhibitions and trade shows, including the Great Pin of 1899, then probably it is the Number Three Broad-headed “Chicken” Extra Long made for the lace-making market by the noted pinner Josiah Doldrum, I would say. They were hand-drawn and had his trademark silver head with a microscopic engraving of a cockerel. It's believed that fewer than a hundred were made before his death, sir. According to Hubert Spider's Pin Catalogue, examples can fetch between fifty and sixty-five dollars, depending on condition. A Number Three Broad-headed Extra Long would grace any true pinhead's collection.'

'Only . . . I spotted this in the street,' said Moist, extracting one of that morning's purchases from his lapel. 'I was walking down Market Street and there it was, between two cobblestones. I thought it looked unusual. For a pin.' Stanley pushed away the fussing Groat and carefully took the pin from Moist's fingers. A very large magnifying glass appeared as if by magic in his other hand. The room held its breath as the pin was subjected to serious scrutiny. Then Stanley looked up at Moist in amazement. 'You knew?' he said. 'And you spotted this in the street? I thought you didn't know anything about pins!'

'Oh, not really, but I dabbled a bit as a boy,' said Moist, waving a hand deprecatingly to suggest that he had been too foolish to turn a schoolboy hobby into a lifetime's obsession. 'You know . . . a few of the old brass Imperials, one or two oddities like an unbroken pair or a double-header, the occasional cheap packet of mixed pins on approval . . .' Thank the gods, he thought, for the skill of speed-reading. 'Oh, there's never anything worthwhile in those,' said Stanley, and slid again into the voice of the academic: 'While most pinheads do indeed begin with a casually acquired flashy novelty pin, followed by the contents of their grandmothers' pincushions, haha, the path to a truly worthwhile collection lies not in the simple disbursement of money in the nearest pin emporium, oh no. Any dilettante can become “king pin” with enough expenditure, but for the true pinhead the real pleasure is in the joy of the chase, the pin fairs, the house clearances and, who knows, a casual glint in the gutter that turns out to be a well-preserved Doublefast or an unbroken two-pointer. Well is it said: “See a pin and pick it up, and all day long you'll have a pin”.' Moist nearly applauded. It was word for word what J. Lanugo Owlsbury had written in the introduction to his work. And, much more important, he now had an unshakable friend in Stanley. That was to say, his darker regions added, Stanley was friends with him. The boy, his panic subsumed by the joy of pins, was holding his new acquisition up to the light. 'Magnificent,' he breathed, all terrors fled. 'Clean as a new pin! I have a place ready and waiting for this in my pin folder, sir!'

'Yes, I thought you might.'

His head was all over the wall . . . Somewhere there was a locked door, and Moist didn't have the key. Four of his predecessors had predeceased in this very building. And there was no escape. Being Postmaster General was a job for life - one way or the other. That was why Vetinari had put him here. He needed a man who couldn't walk away, and who was incidentally completely expendable. It didn't matter if Moist von Lipwig died. He was already dead. And then he tried not to think about Mr Pump. How many other golems had worked their way to freedom in the service of the city? Had there been a Mr Saw, fresh from a hundred years in a pit of sawdust? Or Mr Shovel? Mr Axe, maybe? And had there been one here when the last poor guy had found the key to the locked door, or a good lockpick, and was about to open it when behind him someone called maybe Mr Hammer, yes, oh gods, yes, raised his fist for one sudden, terminal blow? No one had been near him? But they weren't people, were they . . . they were tools. It'd be an industrial accident. His head was all over the wall . . . I'm going to find out about this. I have to, otherwise it'll lie in wait for me. And everyone will tell me lies. But I am the fibbermeister. 'Hmm?' he said, aware that he'd missed something. 'I said, could I go and put this in my collection, Postmaster?' said Stanley. 'What? Oh. Yes. Fine. Yes. Give it a really good polish, too.' As the boy gangled off to his end of the locker room, and he did gangle, Moist caught Groat looking at him shrewdly. 'Well done, Mr Lipwig,' he said. 'Well done.'

'Thank you, Mr Groat.'

'Good eyesight you've got there,' the old man went on. 'Well, the light was shining off it—'

'Nah, I meant to see cobbles in Market Street, it being all brick-paving up there.' Moist returned his blank stare with one even blanker. 'Bricks, cobbles, who cares?' he said. 'Yeah, right. Not important, really,' said Groat. 'And now,' said Moist, feeling the need for some fresh air, 'there's a little errand I have to run. I'd like you to come with me, Mr Groat. Can you find a crowbar anywhere? Bring it, please. And I'll need you, too, Mr Pump.' Werewolves and golems, golems and werewolves, Moist thought. I'm stuck here. I might as well take it seriously. I will show them a sign. 'There's a little habit I have,' said Moist, as he led the way through the streets. 'It's to do with signs.'

'Signs, sir?' said Groat, trying to keep close to the walls. 'Yes, Junior Postman Groat, signs,' said Moist, noticing the way the man winced at 'Junior'. 'Particularly signs with missing letters. When I see one, I automatically read what the missing letters say.'

'And how can you do that, sir, when they're missing?' said Groat. Ah, so there's a clue as to why you're still sitting in a run-down old building making tea from rocks and weeds all day, Moist thought. Aloud he said: 'It's a knack. Now, I could be wrong, of course, but— Ah, we turn left here . . .'

This was quite a busy street, and the shop was in front of them. It was everything that Moist had hoped. 'Voila,' he said and, remembering his audience, he added: 'That is to say, there we have it.'

'It's a barber's shop,' said Groat uncertainly. 'For ladies.'

'Ah, you're a man of the world, Tolliver, there's no fooling you,' said Moist. And the name over the window, in those large, blue-green letters, is . . . ?'

'Hugos,' said Groat. 'And?'

'Yes, Hugo's,' said Moist. 'No apostrophe present in fact, and the reason for this is . . . you could work with me a little here, perhaps . . . ?'

'Er . . .' Groat stared frantically at the letters, defying them to reveal their meaning. 'Close enough,' said Moist. 'There is no apostrophe there because there was and is no apostrophe in the uplifting slogan that adorns our beloved Post Office, Mr Groat.' He waited for light to dawn. 'Those big metal letters were stolen from our facade, Mr Groat. I mean, the front of the building. They're the reason for Glom of Nit, Mr Groat.' It took a little time for Mr Groat's mental sunrise to take place, but Moist was ready when it did. 'No, no, no!' he said, grabbing the old man's greasy collar as he lurched forward, and almost pulling Groat off his feet. 'That's not how we deal with this, is it?'

'That's Post Office property! That's worse'n stealing, that is! That's treason!' Groat yelled. 'Quite so,' said Moist. 'Mr Pump, if you would just hold on to our friend here, I will go and . . . discuss the matter.' Moist handed over the furious Junior Postman and brushed himself off. He looked a bit rumpled but it would have to do. 'What are you going to do, then?' said Groat. Moist smiled his sunshine smile. 'Something I'm good at, Mr Groat. I'm going to talk to people.' He crossed the road and opened the shop door. The bell jangled. Inside the hairdresser's shop was an array of little booths, and the air smelled sweet and cloying and, somehow, pink; right by the door was a little desk with a big open diary. There were lots of flowers around, and the young woman at the desk gave him a haughty look that was going to cost her employer a lot of money. She waited for Moist to speak. Moist put on a grave expression, leaned down and said in a voice that had all the characteristics of a whisper but also seemed to be able to carry quite a long way, 'Can I see Mr Hugo, please? It is very important.'

'On what business would that be?'

'Well . . . it's a little delicate . . .' said Moist. He could see the tops of permed heads turning. 'But you can tell him it's good news.'

'Well, if it's good news . . .'

'Tell him I think I can persuade Lord Vetinari that this can be settled without charges being brought. Probably,' said Moist, lowering his voice just enough to increase the curiosity of the customers while not so much as to be inaudible. The woman stared at him in horror. 'You can? Er . . .' She groped for an ornate speaking tube, but Moist took it gently from her hand, whistled expertly down it, lifted it to his ear and flashed her a smile. 'Thank you,' he said. For what did not matter; smile, say the right kinds of words in the right kind of voice, and always, always radiate confidence like a supernova. A voice in his ear, faint as a spider trapped in a matchbox, said: 'Scitich wabble nabnab?'

'Hugo?' said Moist. 'It's good of you to make time for me. It's Moist, Moist von Lipwig. Postmaster General.' He glanced at the speaking tube. It disappeared into the ceiling. 'So kind of

you to assist us, Hugo. It's these missing letters. Five missing letters, to be exact.'

'Scrik? Shabadatwik? Scritch vit bottofix!'

'Don't really carry that kind of thing, Hugo, but if you'd care to look out of your window you'll see my personal assistant, Mr Pump. He's standing on the other side of the street.' And he's eight feet tall and carrying a huge crowbar, Moist added mentally. He winked at the lady sitting at the desk, who was watching him in a kind of awe. You had to keep people skills polished at all times. He heard the muffled expletive through the floor. Via the speaking tube it became 'Vugrs nickbibble!'

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