Going Postal

Page 33

'I believe I have adequate funds,' said Moist. He probably hadn't, he knew. A restaurant that has a waiter even for the mustard stacks up the prices. But right now Moist wasn't worrying about the bill. There were ways to deal with bills, and it was best to deal with them on a full stomach. They ordered starters that probably cost more than the weekly food bill for an average man. There was no point in looking for the cheapest thing on the menu. The cheapest thing theoretically existed but somehow, no matter how hard you stared, didn't quite manage to be there. On the other hand, there were a lot of most expensive things. 'Are the boys settling in okay?' said Miss Dearheart. The boys, Moist thought. 'Oh, yes. Anghammarad has really taken to it. A natural postman,' he said. 'Well, he's had practice.'

'What's that box he's got riveted to his arm?'

'That? A message he's got to deliver. Not the original baked clay tablet, I gather. He's had to make copies two or three times and the bronze lasts hardly any time at all, to a golem. It's a message to King Het of Thut from his astrologers on their holy mountain, telling him that the Goddess of the Sea was angry and what ceremonies he'd have to do to placate her.'

'Didn't Thut slide into the sea anyway? I thought he said—'

'Yeah, yeah, Anghammarad got there too late and was swept away by the ferocious tidal wave and the island sank.'

'So . . . ?' said Moist. 'So what?' said Miss Dearheart. 'So . . . he doesn't think that delivering it now might be a bit on the tardy side?'

'No. He doesn't. You're not seeing it like a golem. They believe the universe is doughnut- shaped.'

'Would that be a ring doughnut or a jam doughnut?' said Moist. 'Ring, definitely, but don't push for further culinary details, because I can see you'll try to make a joke of it. They think it has no start or finish. We just keep going round and round, but we don't have to make the same decisions every time.'

'Like getting an angel the hard way,' said Moist. 'What do you mean?' said Miss Dearheart. 'Er . . . he's waiting until the whole tidal wave business comes around again and this time he'll get there earlier and do it right?'

'Yes. Don't point out all the flaws in the idea. It works for him.'

'He's going to wait for millions and millions of years?' said Moist. 'That's not a flaw, not to a golem. That's only a matter of time. They don't get bored. They repair themselves and they're very hard to shatter. They survive under the sea or in red-hot lava. He might be able to do it, who knows? In the meantime, he keeps himself busy. Just like you, Mr Lipwig. You've been very busy—' She froze, staring over his shoulder. He saw her right hand scrabble frantically among the cutlery and grab a knife. 'That bastard has just walked into the place!' she hissed. 'Readier Gilt! I'll just kill him and join you for the pudding . . .'

'You can't do that!' hissed Moist. 'Oh? Why not?'

'You're using the wrong knife! That's for the fish! You'll get into trouble!' She glared at him, but her hand relaxed and something like a smile appeared. 'They don't have a knife for stabbing rich murdering bastards?' she said. 'They bring it to the table when you order one,' said Moist urgently. 'Look, this isn't the Drum, they don't just throw the body on to the river! They'll call the Watch! Get a grip. Not on the knife! And get ready to run.'


'Because I forged his signature on Grand Trunk notepaper to get us in here, that's why.' Moist turned round to look at the great man in the flesh for the first time. He was great, a bear- shaped man, in a frock coat big enough for two and a gold-braid waistcoat. And he had a cockatoo on his shoulder, although a waiter was hurrying forward with a shiny brass perch and, presumably, the seed-and-nut menu. There was a party of well-dressed people with Gilt, and as they progressed across the room the whole place began to revolve around the big man, gold being very dense and having a gravity all of its own. Waiters bustled and grovelled and did unimportant things with an air of great importance, and it was probably only a matter of minutes before one of them told Gilt that his other guests had been seated. But Moist was scanning the rest of the room for the— Ah, there they were, two of them. What was it about hired muscle that made it impossible to get a suit to fit? One was watching the door, one was watching the room, and without a shadow of a doubt there was at least one in the kitchen.

—and, yes, the maitre d' was earning his tip by assuring the great man that his friends had been duly looked after— —the big head, with its leonine mane, turned to stare at Moist's table— —Miss Dearheart murmured, 'Oh gods, he's coming over!'— —and Moist stood up. The hired fists had shifted position. They wouldn't actually do anything in here, but nor would anyone else be worried if he was escorted out with speed and firmness for a little discussion in some alley somewhere. Gilt was advancing between the tables, leaving his puzzled guests behind. This was a job for people skills, or diving through the window. But Gilt would have to be at least marginally polite. People were listening. 'Mr Reacher Gilt?' said Moist. 'Indeed, sir,' said Gilt, grinning without a trace of humour. 'But you appear to have me at a disadvantage.' T do hope not, sir,' said Moist. 'It appears that I asked the restaurant to retain a table for you, Mr . . . Lipwig?'

'Did you, Mr Gilt?' said Moist, with what he knew was remarkably persuasive innocence. 'We arrived in the hope that there might be a spare table and were astonished to find there was!'

'Then at least one of us has been made a fool of, Mr Lipwig,' said Gilt. 'But tell me . . . are you truly Mr Moist von Lipwig the postmaster?'

'Yes, I am.'

'Without your hat?' Moist coughed. 'It's not actually compulsory,' he said. The big face observed him in silence, and then a hand like a steel-worker's glove was thrust forward. 'I am very pleased to meet you at last, Mr Lipwig. I trust your good luck will continue.' Moist took the hand and, instead of the bone-crushing grip he was expecting, felt the firm handshake of an honourable man and looked into the steady, honest, one-eyed gaze of Reacher Gilt. Moist had worked hard at his profession and considered himself pretty good at it but, if he had been wearing his hat, he would have taken it off right now. He was in the presence of a master. He could feel it in the hand, see it in that one commanding eye. Were things otherwise, he would have humbly begged to be taken on as an apprentice, scrub the man's floors, cook his food, just to sit at the feet of greatness and learn how to do the three card trick using whole banks. If Moist was any judge, any judge at all, the man in front of him was the biggest fraud he'd ever met. And he advertised it. That was . . . style. The pirate curls, the eyepatch, even the damn parrot. Twelve and a half per cent, for heavens' sake, didn't anyone spot that? He told them what he was, and they laughed and loved him for it. It was breathtaking. If Moist von Lipwig had been a career killer, it would have been like meeting a man who'd devised a way to destroy civilizations. All this came in an instant, in one bolt of understanding, in the glint of an eye. But something ran in front of it as fast as a little fish ahead of a shark. Gilt was shocked, not surprised. That tiny moment was barely measurable on any clock but just for an instant the world had gone wrong for Reacher Gilt. That moment had been wiped out so competently that all that remained of it was Moist's certainty that it had happened, but the certainty was rigid. He was loath to let go of the hand in case there was a flash that might broil him alive. After all, he had recognized the nature of Gilt, so the man must certainly have spotted him. 'Thank you, Mr Gilt,' he said. 'I gather you were kind enough to carry some of our messages today,' Gilt rumbled.

'It was a pleasure, sir. If ever you need our help, you only have to ask.'

'Hmm,' said Gilt. 'But the least I can do is buy you dinner, Postmaster. The bill will come to my table. Choose whatever you wish. And now, if you will excuse me, I must attend to my . . . other guests.' He bowed to the simmering Miss Dearheart and walked back. 'The management would like to thank you for not killing the guests,' said Moist, sitting down. 'Now we should—' He stopped, and stared. Miss Dearheart, who had been saving up to hiss at him, took one look at his face and hesitated. 'Are you ill?' she said. 'They're . . . burning,' said Moist, his eyes widening. 'Ye gods, you've gone white!'

'The writing . . . they're screaming . . . I can smell burning!'

'Someone over there is having crepes,' said Miss Dearheart. 'It's just—' She stopped, and sniffed. 'It smells like paper, though . . .' People looked round as Moist's chair crashed backwards. 'The Post Office is on fire! I know it is!' he shouted, and turned and ran. Miss Dearheart caught up just as he was in the hall, where one of Gilt's bodyguards had grabbed him. She tapped the man on the shoulder and, as he turned to push her away, stamped down heavily. While he screamed she dragged the bewildered Moist away. 'Water . . . we've got to get water,' he groaned. 'They're burning! They're all burning!'

Chapter Ten

The Burning of Words In which Stanley remains Calm - Moist the Hero - Searching for a Cat, never a good idea - Something in the Dark - Mr Gryle is encountered - Fire and Water - Mr Lipwig Helps the Watch - Dancing on the edge — Mr Lipwig Gets Religion — Opportunity Time - Miss Maccalariat's hairgrip - The Miracle The letters burned. Part of the ceiling fell down, showering more letters on to the flames. The fire was already reaching for the upper floors. As Stanley dragged Mr Groat across the floor another slab of plaster smashed on the tiles and the old mail that poured down after it was already burning. Smoke, thick as soup, rolled across the distant ceiling. Stanley pulled the old man into the locker room and laid him on his bed. He rescued the golden hat, too, because Mr Lipwig would be bound to be angry if he didn't. Then he shut the door and took down, from the shelf over Groat's desk, the Book of Regulations. He turned the pages methodically until he came to the bookmark he'd put in a minute ago, on the page What To Do In Case Of Fire. Stanley always followed the rules. All sorts of things could go wrong if you didn't. So far he'd done 1: Upon Discovery of the Fire, Remain Calm. Now he came to 2: Shout 'Fire!' in a Loud, Clear Voice. 'Fire!' he shouted, and then ticked off 2 with his pencil. Next was: 3: Endeavour to Extinguish Fire If Possible. Stanley went to the door and opened it. Flames and smoke billowed in. He stared at them for a moment, shook his head, and shut the door. Paragraph 4 said: If Trapped by Fire, Endeavour to Escape. Do Not Open Doors If Warm. Do Not Use Stairs If Burning. If No Exit Presents Itself Remain Calm and Await a) Rescue or b) Death. This seemed to cover it. The world of pins was simple and Stanley knew his way around it as a goldfish knows its tank, but everything else was very complicated and only worked if you followed the rules. He glanced up at the grubby little windows. They were far too small to climb through and had been welded shut by many applications of official paint, so he broke one pane as neatly as possible to allow some fresh air in. He made a note of this in the breakages book. Mr Groat was still breathing, although with an unpleasant bubbling sound. There was a First Aid kit in the locker room, because Regulations demanded it, but it contained only a small length of bandage, a bottle of something black and sticky, and Mr Groat's spare teeth. Mr Groat had told him never to touch his home-made medicines, and since it was not unusual for bottles to explode during the night Stanley had always observed this rule very carefully. It did not say in the Regulations: If Attacked by Huge Swooping Screaming Creature Hit Hard in the Mouth with Sack of Pins, and Stanley wondered if he should pencil this in. But that would be Defacing Post Office Property, and he could get into trouble for that. All avenues of further activity being therefore closed, Stanley remained calm.

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