Going Postal

Page 30

'No.' Gryle was not a man for small talk or, if it came to it, any talk at all. 'You've read the newspapers?'

'Do not read.'

'You know about the Post Office.'


'How, may I ask?'

'There is talk.' Gilt accepted that. Mr Gryle had a special talent, and if that came as a package with funny little ways then so be it. Besides, he was trustworthy; a man without middle grounds. He'd never blackmail you, because such an attempt would be the first move in a game that would almost certainly end in death for somebody; if Mr Gryle found himself in such a game he'd kill right now, without further thought, in order to save time, and assumed that anyone else would, too. Presumably he was insane, by the usual human standards, but it was hard to tell; the phrase 'differently normal' might do instead. After all, Gryle could probably defeat a vampire within ten seconds, and had none of a vampire's vulnerabilities, except perhaps an inordinate fondness for pigeons. He'd been a real find. 'And you have discovered nothing about Mr Lipwig?' Gilt said. 'No. Father dead. Mother dead. Raised by grandfather. Sent away to school. Bullied. Ran away. Vanished,' said the tall figure. 'Hmm. I wonder where he's been all this time? Or who he has been?' Gryle didn't waste breath on rhetorical questions. 'He is . . . a nuisance.'

'Understood.' And that was the charm. Gryle did understand. He seldom needed an order, you just had to state the problem. The fact that it was Gryle that you were stating it to went a long way towards ensuring what the solution was likely to be. 'The Post Office building is old and full of paper. Very dry paper,' said Gilt. 'It would be regrettable if the fine old place caught fire.'

'Understood.' And that was another thing about Gryle. He really did not talk much. He especially did not talk about old times, and all the other little solutions he had provided for Reacher Gilt. And he never said things like 'What do you mean?' He understood.

'Require one thousand, three hundred dollars,' he said. 'Of course,' said Gilt. 'I will clacks it to your account in—'

'Will take cash,' said Gryle. 'Gold? I don't keep that much around,' said Gilt. 'I can get it in a few days, of course, but I thought you preferred—'

'I do not trust the semaphore now.'

'But our ciphers are very well—'

'I do not trust the semaphore now,' Gryle repeated. 'Very well.'

'Description,' said Gryle. 'No one seems to remember what he looks like,' said Gilt. 'But he always wears a big golden hat, with wings, and he has an apartment in the building.' For a moment something flickered around Gryle's thin lips. It was a smile panicking at finding itself in such an unfamiliar place. 'Can he fly?' he said. 'Alas, he doesn't seem inclined to venture into high places,' said Gilt. Gryle stood up. 'I will do this tonight.'

'Good man. Or, rather—'

'Understood,' said Gryle.

Chapter Nine

Bonfire Slugger and Leadpipe - Gladys Pulls It Off- The Hour of the Dead - Irrational Fear of Dental Spinach - 'A proper brawl doesn't just happen' - How the Trunk Was Stolen - Stanley's Little Moment - The etiquette of knives - Face to Face – Fire The mail coaches had survived the decline and fall of the Post Office because they had to. Horses needed to be fed. But in any case, the coaches had always carried passengers. The halls went silent, the chandeliers disappeared along with everything else, even things that were nailed down, but out back in the big yard the coach service flourished. The coaches weren't exactly stolen, and weren't exactly inherited . . . they just drifted into the possession of the coach people. Then, according to Groat, who regarded himself as the custodian of all Post Office knowledge, the other coach drivers had been bought out by Big Jim 'Still Standing' Upwright with the money he'd won betting on himself in a bare knuckle contest against Harold 'The Hog' Boots, and the coach business was now run by his sons Harry 'Slugger' Upwright and Little Jim 'Leadpipe' Upwright. Moist could see that a careful approach was going to be required. The hub or nerve centre of the coach business was a big shed next to the stable. It smelled - no, it stank - no, it fugged of horses, leather, veterinary medicine, bad coal, brandy and cheap cigars. That's what a fug was. You could have cut cubes out of the air and sold it for cheap building material. When Moist entered, a huge man, made practically spherical by multiple layers of waistcoats and overcoats, was warming his backside in front of the roaring stove. Another man of very much the same shape was leaning over the shoulder of a clerk, both of them concentrating on some paper. Some staffing debate had obviously been in progress, because the man by the fire was saying '. . . well, then, if he's sick put young Alfred on the evening run and—' He stopped when he saw Moist, and then said, 'Yes, sir? What can we do for you?'

'Carry my mailbags,' said Moist. They stared at him, and then the man who'd been toasting his bottom broke into a grin. Jim and Harry Upwright might have been twins. They were big men, who looked as though they'd been built out of pork and fat bacon. 'Are you this shiny new postmaster we've been hearing about?'

'That's right.'

'Yeah, well, your man was already here,' said the toaster. 'Went on and on about how we should do this and do that, never said anything about the price!'

'A price?' said Moist, spreading out his hands and beaming. 'Is that all this is about? Easily done. Easily done.' He turned, opened the door and shouted: 'Okay, Gladys!' There was some shouting in the darkness of the yard, and then the creak of timber. 'What the hell did you do?' said the spherical man. 'My price is this,' said Moist. 'You agree to carry my mail, and you won't have another wheel dragged off that mail coach out there. I can't say fairer than that, okay?'

The man lumbered forward, growling, but the other coachman grabbed his coat. 'Steady there, Jim,' he said. 'He's gov'ment and he's got golems working for 'im.' On cue, Mr Pump stepped into the room, bending to get through the doorway. Jim scowled at him. 'That don't frighten me!' said Jim. 'They ain't allowed to hurt folks!'

'Wrong,' said Moist. 'Probably dead wrong.'

'Then we'll call the Watch on yer,' said Harry Upwright, still holding back his brother. 'All proper and official. How d'you like that?'

'Good, call the Watch,' said Moist. 'And I shall tell them I'm recovering stolen property.' He raised his voice. 'Gladys!' There was another crash from outside. 'Stolen? Those coaches are ours!' said Harry Upwright. 'Wrong again, I'm afraid,' said Moist. 'Mr Pump?'

'The Mail Coaches Were Never Sold Off,' the golem rumbled. 'They Are The Property Of The Post Office. No Rent Has Been Paid For The Use Of Post Office Property.'

'Right, that's it!' Jim roared, shaking his brother away. Mr Pump's fists rose, instantly. The world paused. 'Hold on, Jim, hold on just one minute,' said Harry Upwright carefully. 'What's your game, Mr Postman? The coaches always used to carry passengers too, right? And then there was no mail to take but people still wanted to travel, and the coaches were just standing around and the horses were needing to be fed, so our dad paid for the fodder and the vet's bills and no one—'

'Just take my mail,' said Moist. 'That's all. Every coach takes the mailbags and drops them off where I say. That's all. Tell me where you'll get a better deal tonight, eh? You could try your luck pleading finders keepers to Vetinari but that'd take a while to sort out and in the meantime you'd lose all that lovely revenue . . . No? Okay. Glady—'

'No! No! Wait a minute,' said Harry. 'Just the mailbags? That's all?'

'What?' said Jim. 'You want to negotiate? Why? They say possession's nine points of the law, right?'

'And I possess a lot of golems, Mr Upwright,' said Moist. 'And you don't possess any deeds, mortgages or bills of sale.'

'Yeah? And you won't possess any teeth, mister!' said Jim, rolling forward. 'Now, now,' said Moist, stepping quickly in front of Mr Pump and raising a hand. 'Don't kill me again, Mr Upwright.' Both the brothers looked puzzled. 'I'll swear Jim never laid a finger on you, and that's the truth,' said Harry. 'What's your game?'

'Oh, he did, Harry,' said Moist. 'Lost his temper, took a swing, I went over, hit my head on that old bench there, got up not knowing where the hell I was, you tried to hold Jim back, he hit me with that chair, the one just there, and down I went for keeps. The golems got you, Harry, but Jim went on the run, only to be tracked down by the Watch in Sto Lat. Oh, what scenes, what chases, and you both ended up in the Tanty, the charge against the pair of you being murder—'

'Here, I didn't hit you with the chair!' said Harry, eyes wide. 'It was Ji— Here, hang on a minute . . .'

'—and this morning Mr Trooper measured you up for the last necktie and there you were, standing in that room under the gallows, knowing that you'd lost your business, you'd lost your coaches, you'd lost your fine horses, and in two minutes—' Moist let the sentence hang in the air. 'And?' said Harry. Both brothers were watching him with expressions of horrified confusion

which would coalesce into violence inside five seconds if this didn't work. Keeping them off balance was the ticket. Moist counted to four in his head, while smiling beatifically. 'And then an angel appeared,' he said. Ten minutes can change a lot. It was enough to brew two cups of tea thick enough to spread on bread. The brothers Upwright probably didn't believe in angels. But they believed in bullshit, and were the type to admire it when it was delivered with panache. There's a kind of big, outdoor sort of man who's got no patience at all with prevaricators and fibbers, but will applaud any man who can tell an outrageous whopper with a gleam in his eye. 'Funny you should turn up tonight,' said Harry. 'Oh? Why?'

' 'cos a man from the Grand Trunk came round this afternoon and offered us big money for the business. Too much money, you could say.' Oh, thought Moist, something's starting . . . 'But you, Mr Lipwig, is giving us nothing but attitude and threats,' said Jim. 'Care to raise your offer?'

'Okay. Bigger threats,' said Moist. 'But I'll throw in a new paint job on every coach, gratis. Be sensible, gentlemen. You've had an easy ride, but now we're back in business. All you have to do is what you've always done, but you'll carry my mail. Come on, there's a lady waiting for me and you know you shouldn't keep a lady waiting. What do you say?'

'Is she an angel?' said Harry. 'He probably hopes not, hur, hur.' Jim had a laugh like a bull clearing its throat. 'Hur, hur,' said Moist solemnly. 'Just carry the bags, gents. The Post Office is going places and you could be in the driving seat.' The brothers exchanged a glance. Then they grinned. It was as if one grin spread across two glistening red faces. 'Our dad would've liked you,' said Jim. 'He sure as hell wouldn't like the Grand Trunk devils,' said Harry. 'They need cutting down to size, Mr Lipwig, and people are saying you're the man to do it.'

'People die on them towers,' said Jim. 'We see, you know. Damn right! The towers follows the coach roads. We used to have the contract to haul lads out to the towers and we heard 'em talking. They used to have an hour a day when they shut the whole Trunk down for maint'nance.'

'The Hour of the Dead, they called it,' said Harry. 'Just before dawn. That's when people die.' Across a continent, the line of light, beads on the pre-dawn darkness. And, then, the Hour of the Dead begins, at either end of the Grand Trunk, as the upline and downline shutters clear their messages and stop moving, one after the other. The men of the towers had prided themselves on the speed with which they could switch their towers from black and white daylight transmission to the light and dark mode of the night. On a good day they could do it with barely a break in transmission, clinging to swaying ladders high above the ground while around them the shutters rattled and chattered. There were heroes who'd lit all sixteen lamps on a big tower in less than a minute, sliding down ladders, swinging on ropes, keeping their tower alive. 'Alive' was the word they used. No one wanted a dark tower, not even for a minute.

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