Going Postal

Page 2

'Meaning what?' said Moist. 'Meaning I've never seen someone up here more'n once, sir. Shall we go?' There was a stir when they climbed up into the chilly morning air, followed by a few boos and even some applause. People were strange like that. Steal five dollars and you were a petty thief. Steal thousands of dollars and you were either a government or a hero. Moist stared ahead while the roll call of his crimes was read out. He couldn't help feeling that it was so unfair. He'd never so much as tapped someone on the head. He'd never even broken down a door. He had picked locks on occasion, but he'd always locked them again behind him. Apart from all those repossessions, bankruptcies and sudden insolvencies, what had he actually done that was bad, as such? He'd only been moving numbers around. 'Nice crowd turned out today,' said Mr Trooper, tossing the end of the rope over the beam and busying himself with knots. 'Lot of press, too. What Gallows? covers 'em all, o' course, and there's the Times and the Pseudopolis Herald, prob'ly because of that bank what collapsed there, and I heard there's a man from the Sto Plains Dealer, too. Very good financial section - I always keep an eye on the used rope prices. Looks like a lot of people want to see you dead, sir.' Moist was aware that a black coach had drawn up at the rear of the crowd. There was no coat of arms on the door, unless you were in on the secret, which was that Lord Vetinari's coat of arms featured a sable shield. Black on black. You had to admit that the bastard had style— 'Huh? What?' he said, in response to a nudge. 'I asked if you have any last words, Mr Spangler?' said the hangman. 'It's customary. I wonder if you might have thought of any?'

'I wasn't actually expecting to die,' said Moist. And that was it. He really hadn't, until now. He'd been certain that something would turn up. 'Good one, sir,' said Mr Wilkinson. 'We'll go with that, shall we?' Moist narrowed his eyes. The curtain on a coach window had twitched. The coach door had opened. Hope, that greatest of all treasures, ventured a little glitter. 'No, they're not my actual last words,' he said. 'Er . . . let me think . . .' A slight, clerk-like figure was descending from the coach. 'Er . . . it's not as bad a thing I do now . . . er . . .' Aha, it all made some kind of sense now. Vetinari was out to scare him, that was it. That would be just like the man, from what Moist had heard. There was going to be a reprieve! 'I . . . er . . . I . . .' Down below, the clerk was having difficulty getting through the press of people. 'Do you mind speeding up a bit, Mr Spangler?' said the hangman. 'Fair's fair, eh?'

'I want to get it right,' said Moist haughtily, watching the clerk negotiate his way around a large troll. 'Yes, but there's a limit, sir,' said the hangman, annoyed at this breach of etiquette. 'Otherwise you could go ah, er, um for days! Short and sweet, sir, that's the style.'

'Right, right,' said Spangler. 'Er . . . oh, look, see that man there? Waving at you?' The hangman glanced down at the clerk, who'd struggled to the front of the crowd. 'I bring a message from Lord Vetinari!' the man shouted. 'Right!' said Moist. 'He says to get on with it, it's long past dawn!' said the clerk. 'Oh,' said Moist, staring at the black coach. That damn Vetinari had a warder's sense of humour, too. 'Come on, Mr Spangler, you don't want me to get into trouble, do you?' said the hangman, patting him on the shoulder. 'Just a few words, and then we can all get on with our lives. Present company excepted, obviously.' So this was it. It was, in some strange way, rather liberating. You didn't have to fear the worst that could happen any more, because this was it, and it was nearly over. The warder had been right. What you had to do in this life was get past the pineapple, Moist told himself. It was big and sharp and knobbly, but there might be peaches underneath. It was a myth to live by and so, right now, totally useless. 'In that case,' said Moist von Lipwig, 'I commend my soul to any god that can find it.'

'Nice,' said the hangman, and pulled the lever. Albert Spangler died. It was generally agreed that they had been good last words. 'Ah, Mr Lipwig,' said a distant voice, getting closer. 'I see you are awake. And still alive, at the present time.' There was a slight inflection to that last phrase which told Moist that the length of the present time was entirely in the gift of the speaker. He opened his eyes. He was sitting in a comfortable chair. At a desk opposite him, sitting with his hands steepled reflectively in front of his pursed lips, was Havelock, Lord Vetinari, under whose idio-syncratically despotic rule Ankh-Morpork had become the city where, for some reason, everyone wanted to live. An ancient animal sense also told Moist that other people were standing behind the comfortable chair, and that it could be extremely uncomfortable should he make any sudden movements. But they couldn't be as terrible as the thin, black-robed man with the fussy little beard and the pianist's hands who was watching him. 'Shall I tell you about angels, Mr Lipwig?' said the Patrician pleasantly. 'I know two interesting facts about them.' Moist grunted. There were no obvious escape routes in front of him, and turning round was out of the question. His neck ached horribly. 'Oh, yes. You were hanged,' said Vetinari. 'A very precise science, hanging. Mr Trooper is a master. The slippage and thickness of the rope, whether the knot is placed here rather than there, the relationship between weight and distance . . . oh, I'm sure the man could write a book. You were hanged to within half an inch of your life, I understand. Only an expert standing right next to you would have spotted that, and in this case the expert was our friend Mr Trooper. No, Albert Spangler is dead, Mr Lipwig. Three hundred people would swear they saw him die.' He leaned forward. 'And so, appropriately, it is of angels I wish to talk to you now.' Moist managed a grunt. 'The first interesting thing about angels, Mr Lipwig, is that sometimes, very rarely, at a point in a man's career where he has made such a foul and tangled mess of his life that death appears to be the only sensible option, an angel appears to him, or, I should say, unto him, and offers him a chance to go back to the moment when it all went wrong, and this time do it right. Mr Lipwig, I should like you to think of me as . . . an angel.' Moist stared. He'd felt the snap of the rope, the choke of the noose! He'd seen the blackness welling up! He'd died! 'I'm offering you a job, Mr Lipwig. Albert Spangler is buried, but Mr Lipwig has a future. It may, of course, be a very short one, if he is stupid. I am offering you a job, Mr Lipwig. Work, for wages. I realize the concept may not be familiar.' Only as a form of hell, Moist thought. 'The job is that of Postmaster General of the Ankh-Morpork Post Office.' Moist continued to stare. 'May I just add, Mr Lipwig, that behind you there is a door. If at any time in this interview you feel you wish to leave, you have only to step through it and you will never hear from me again.' Moist filed that under 'deeply suspicious'. 'To continue: the job, Mr Lipwig, involves the refurbishment and running of the city's postal service, preparation of the international packets, maintenance of Post Office property, et cetera, et cetera—'

'If you stick a broom up my arse I could probably sweep the floor, too,' said a voice. Moist realized it was his. His brain was a mess. It had come as a shock to find that the afterlife is this one. Lord Vetinari gave him a long, long look. 'Well, if you wish,' he said, and turned to a hovering clerk. 'Drumknott, does the housekeeper have a store cupboard on this floor, do you know?'

'Oh, yes, my lord,' said the clerk. 'Shall I—'

'It was a joke!' Moist burst out. 'Oh, I'm sorry, I hadn't realized,' said Lord Vetinari, turning back to Moist. 'Do tell me if you feel obliged to make another one, will you?'

'Look,' said Moist, 'I don't know what's happening here, but I don't know anything about delivering post!'

'Mr Moist, this morning you had no experience at all of being dead, and yet but for my intervention you would nevertheless have turned out to be extremely good at it,' said Lord Vetinari sharply. 'It just goes to show: you never know until you try'

'But when you sentenced me—' Vetinari raised a pale hand. 'Ah?' he said. Moist's brain, at last aware that it needed to do some work here, stepped in and replied: 'Er . . . when you . . . sentenced . . . Albert Spangler—'

'Well done. Do carry on.'

'—you said he was a natural born criminal, a fraudster by vocation, an habitual liar, a perverted genius and totally untrustworthy!'

'Are you accepting my offer, Mr Lipwig?' said Vetinari sharply. Moist looked at him. 'Excuse me,' he said, standing up, 'I'd just like to check something.' There were two men dressed in black standing behind his chair. It wasn't a particularly neat black, more the black worn by people who just don't want little marks to show. They looked like clerks, until you met their eyes. They stood aside as Moist walked towards the door which, as promised, was indeed there. He opened it very carefully. There was nothing beyond, and that included a floor. In the manner of one who is going to try all possibilities, he took the remnant of spoon out of his pocket and let it drop. It was quite a long time before he heard the jingle. Then he went back and sat in the chair. 'The prospect of freedom?' he said. 'Exactly,' said Lord Vetinari. 'There is always a choice.'

'You mean . . . I could choose certain death?'

'A choice, nevertheless,' said Vetinari. 'Or, perhaps, an alternative. You see, I believe in freedom, Mr Lipwig. Not many people do, although they will of course protest otherwise. And no practical definition of freedom would be complete without the freedom to take the consequences. Indeed, it is the freedom upon which all the others are based. Now . . . will you take the job? No one will recognize you, I am sure. No one ever recognizes you, it would appear.' Moist shrugged. 'Oh, all right. Of course, I accept as natural born criminal, habitual liar, fraudster and totally untrustworthy perverted genius.'

'Capital! Welcome to government service!' said Lord Vetinari, extending his hand. 'I pride myself on being able to pick the right man. The wage is twenty dollars a week and, I believe, the Postmaster General has the use of a small apartment in the main building. I think there's a hat, too. I shall require regular reports. Good day.' He looked down at his paperwork. He looked up. 'You appear to be still here, Postmaster General?'

'And that's it?' said Moist, aghast. 'One minute I'm being hanged, next minute you're employing me?'

'Let me see . . . yes, I think so. Oh, no. Of course. Drumknott, do give Mr Lipwig his keys.' The clerk stepped forward and handed Moist a huge, rusted keyring full of keys, and proffered a clipboard. 'Sign here, please, Postmaster General,' he said. Hold on a minute, Moist thought, this is only one city. It's got gates. It's completely surrounded by different directions to run. Does it matter what I sign? 'Certainly,' he said, and scribbled his name. 'Your correct name, if you please,' said Lord Vetinari, not looking up from his desk. 'What name did he sign, Drumknott?' The clerk craned his head. 'Er . . . Ethel Snake, my lord, as far as I can make out.'

'Do try to concentrate, Mr Lipwig,' said Vetinari wearily, still apparently reading the paperwork. Moist signed again. After all, what would it matter in the long run? And it would certainly be a long run, if he couldn't find a horse.

'And that leaves only the matter of your parole officer,' said Lord Vetinari, still engrossed in the paper before him. 'Parole officer?'

'Yes. I'm not completely stupid, Mr Lipwig. He will meet you outside the Post Office building in ten minutes. Good day.' When Moist had left, Drumknott coughed politely and said, 'Do you think he'll turn up there, my lord?'

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