Going Postal

Page 34

It was a gentle snow of letters. Some landed still burning, fountaining out of the column of crackling fire that had already broken through the Post Office roof. Some were blackened ashes on which sparks travelled in mockery of the dying ink. Some - many - had sailed up and over the city unscathed, zigzagging down gently like communications from an excessively formal sort of god. Moist tore off his jacket as he pushed through the crowd. 'The people probably got out,' said Miss Dear heart, clattering along beside him. 'Do you really think so?' said Moist. 'Really? No. Not if Gilt set this up. Sorry, I'm not very good at being comforting any more.' Moist paused, and tried to think. The flames were coming out of the roof at one end of the building. The main door and the whole left side looked untouched. But fire was sneaky stuff, he knew. It sat there and smouldered until you opened the door to see how it was getting on, and then the fire caught its breath and your eyeballs got soldered to your skull. 'I'd better go in,' he said. 'Er . . . you wouldn't care to say “No, no, don't do it, you're being far too brave!” would you?' he added. Some people were organizing a bucket chain from a nearby fountain; it would be as effective as spitting at the sun. Miss Dearheart caught a burning letter, lit a cigarette with it, and took a drag. 'No, no, don't do it, you're being far too brave!' she said. 'How was that for you? But if you do, the left side looks pretty clear. Watch out, though. There are rumours Gilt employs a vampire. One of the wild ones.'

'Ah. Fire kills them, doesn't it?' said Moist, desperate to look on the bright side. 'It kills everybody, Mr Lipwig,' said Miss Dearheart. 'It kills everybody.' She grabbed him by the ears and gave him a big kiss on the mouth. It was like being kissed by an ashtray, but in a good way. 'On the whole, I'd like you to come out of there,' she said quietly. 'Are you sure you won't wait? The boys will be here in a minute—'

'The golems? It's their day off!'

'They have to obey their chem, though. A fire means humans are in danger. They'll smell it and be here in minutes, believe me.' Moist hesitated, looking at her face. And people were watching him. He couldn't not go in there, it wouldn't fit in with the persona. Gods damn Vetinari! He shook his head, turned, and ran towards the doors. Best not to think about it. Best not to think about being so dumb. Just feel the front door . . . quite cool. Open it gently . . . a rush of air, but no explosion. The big hall, lit with flame . . . but it was all above him, and if he weaved and dodged he could make it to the door that led down to the locker room. He kicked it open. Stanley looked up from his stamps. 'Hello, Mr Lipwig,' he said. 'I kept calm. But I think Mr Groat is ill.' The old man was lying on the bed, and ill was too jolly a word. 'What happened to him?' said Moist, lifting him gently. Mr Groat was no weight at all. 'It was like a big bird, but I frightened it off,' said Stanley. 'I hit it in the mouth with a sack of pins. I . . . had a Little Moment, sir.'

'Well, that ought to do it,' said Moist. 'Now, can you follow me?'

'I've got all the stamps,' said Stanley. 'And the cashbox. Mr Groat keeps them under his bed for safety.' The boy beamed. 'And your hat, too. I kept calm.'

'Well done, well done,' said Moist. 'Now, stick right behind me, okay?'

'What about Mr Tiddles, Mr Lipwig?' said Stanley, suddenly looking worried. Somewhere outside in the hall there was a crash, and the crackle of the fire grew distinctly louder. 'Who? Mr Tidd— the cat? To hell with—' Moist stopped, and readjusted his mouth. 'He'll be

outside, you can bet on it, eating a toasted rat and grinning. Come on, will you?'

'But he's the Post Office cat!' said Stanley. 'He's never been outside!' I'll bet he has now, thought Moist. But there was that edge in the boy's voice again. 'Let's get Mr Groat out of here, okay,' he said, easing his way through the door with the old man in his arms, 'and then I'll come back for Tidd—' A burning beam dropped on to the floor halfway across the hall, and sent sparks and burning envelopes spiralling upwards into the main blaze. It roared, a wall of flame, a fiery waterfall in reverse, up through the other floors and out through the roof. It thundered. It was fire let loose and making the most of it. Part of Moist von Lipwig was happy to let it happen. But a new and troublesome part was thinking: I was making it work. It was all moving forward. The stamps were really working. It was as good as being a criminal without the crime. It had been fun. 'Come on, Stanley!' Moist snapped, turning away from the horrible sight and the fascinating thought. The boy followed, reluctantly, calling for the damn cat all the way to the door. The air outside struck like a knife, but there was a round of applause from the crowd and then a flash of light that Moist had come to associate with eventual trouble. 'Good eefning, Mr Lipvig!' said the cheery voice of Otto Chriek. 'My vord, if ve vant news, all ve have to do is follow you!' Moist ignored him and shouldered his way to Miss Dearheart who, he noticed, was not beside herself with worry. 'Is there a hospice in this city?' he said. 'A decent doctor, even?'

'There's the Lady Sybil Free Hospital,' said Miss Dearheart. 'Is it any good?'

'Some people don't die.'

'That good, eh? Get him there right now! I've got to go back in for the cat!'

'You are going to go back in there for a cat?'

'It's Mr Tiddles,' said Stanley primly. 'He was born in the Post Office.'

'Best not to argue,' said Moist, turning to go. 'See to Mr Groat, will you?' Miss Dearheart looked down at the old man's bloodstained shirt. 'But it looks as though some creature tried to—' she began. 'Something fell on him,' said Moist shortly. 'That couldn't cause—'

'Something fell on him', said Moist. 'That's what happened.' She looked at his face. 'All right,' she agreed. 'Something fell on him. Something with big claws.'

'No, a joist with lots of nails in it, something like that. Anyone can see that.'

'That's what happened, was it?' said Miss Dearheart. 'That's exactly what happened,' said Moist, and strode away before there were any more questions. No point in getting the Watch involved in this, he thought, hurrying towards the doors. They'll clump around and there won't be any answers for them and in my experience watchmen always like to arrest somebody. What makes you think it was Reacher Gilt, Mr . . . Lipwig, wasn't it? Oh, you could tell, could you? That's a skill of yours, is it? Funny thing, we can tell sometimes, too. You've got a very familiar face, Mr Lipwig. Where are you from? No, there was no point in getting friendly with the Watch. They might get in the way. An upper window exploded outwards, and flames licked along the edge of the roof; Moist

ducked into the doorway as glass rained down. As for Tiddles . . . well, he had to find the damn cat. If he didn't, it wouldn't be fun any more. If he didn't risk at least a tiny bit of life and a smidgen of limb, he just wouldn't be able to carry on being him. Had he just thought that? Oh, gods. He'd lost it. He'd never been sure how he'd got it, but it had gone. That's what happened if you took wages. And hadn't his grandfather warned him to keep away from women as neurotic as a shaved monkey? Actually he hadn't, his interest lying mainly with dogs and beer, but he should have done. The vision of Mr Groat's chest kept bumping insistently against his imagination. It looked as though something with claws had taken a swipe at him, and only the thick uniform coat prevented him from being opened like a clam. But that didn't sound like a vampire. They weren't messy like that. It was a waste of good food. Nevertheless, he picked up a piece of smashed chair. It had splintered nicely. And the good thing about a stake through the heart was that it also worked on non-vampires. More ceiling had come down in the hall, but he was able to dodge between the debris. The main staircase was at this end and completely untouched, although smoke lay on the floor like a carpet; at the other end of the hall, where the mountains of old mail had been, the blaze still roared. He couldn't hear the letters any more. Sorry, he thought. I did my best. It wasn't my fault . . . What now? At least he could get his box out of his office. He didn't want that to burn. Some of those chemicals would be quite hard to replace. The office was full of smoke but he dragged the box out from under his desk and then spotted the golden suit on its hanger. He had to take it, didn't he? Something like that couldn't be allowed to burn. He could come back for the box, right? But the suit . . . the suit was necessary. There was no sign of Tiddles. He must have got out, yes? Didn't cats leave sinking ships? Or was it rats? Wouldn't the cats follow the rats? Anyway, smoke was coming up between the floorboards and drifting down from the upper floors, and this wasn't the time to hang around. He'd looked everywhere sensible; there was no sense in being where a ton of burning paper could drop on your head. It was a good plan and it was only spoiled when he spotted the cat, down in the hall. It was watching him with interest. 'Tiddles!' bellowed Moist. He wished he hadn't. It was such a stupid name to shout in a burning building. The cat looked at him, and trotted away. Cursing, Moist hurried after it, and saw it disappear down into the cellars. Cats were bright, weren't they? There was probably another way out . . . bound to be . . . Moist didn't even look up when he heard the creaking of wood overhead, but ran forward and went down the steps five at a time. By the sound of it, a large amount of the entire building smashed on to the floor just behind him, and sparks roared down the cellar passage, burning his neck. Well, there was no going back, at least. But cellars, now, they had trapdoors and coal shutes and things, didn't they? And they were cool and safe and— —just the place where you'd go to lick your wounds after being smashed in the mouth with a sackful of pins, right? An imagination is a terrible thing to bring along. A vampire, she'd said. And Stanley had hit 'a big bird' with a sackful of pins. Stanley the Vampire Slayer, with a bag of pins. You wouldn't believe it, unless you'd seen him in one of what Mr Groat called his 'little moments'. You probably couldn't kill a vampire with pins . . . And after a thought like that is when you realize that however hard you try to look behind you,

there's a behind you, behind you, where you aren't looking. Moist flung his back to the cold stone wall, and slithered along it until he ran out of wall and acquired a doorframe. The faint blue glow of the Sorting Engine was just visible. As Moist peered into the machine's room, Tiddles was visible too. He was crouched under the engine. 'That's a very cat thing you're doing there, Tiddles,' said Moist, staring at the shadows. 'Come to Uncle Moist. Please?' He sighed, and hung the suit on an old letter rack, and crouched down. How were you supposed to pick up a cat? He'd never done it. Cats never figured in grandfather's Lipwigzer kennels, except as an impromptu snack. As his hand drew near Tiddles, the cat flattened its ears and hissed. 'Do you want to cook down here?' said Moist. 'No claws, please.' The cat began to growl, and Moist realized that it wasn't looking directly at him. 'Good Tiddles,' he said, feeling the terror begin to rise. It was one of the prime rules of exploring in a hostile environment: do not bother about the cat. And, suddenly, the environment was a lot more hostile. Another important rule was: don't turn round slowly to look. It's there all right. Not the cat. Damn the cat. It's something else. He stood upright and took a two-handed grip on the wooden stake. It's right behind me, yes? he thought. Bloody well bloody right bloody behind me! Of course it is! How could things be otherwise? The feeling of fear was almost the same as the feeling he got when, say, a mark was examining a glass diamond. Time slowed a little, every sense was heightened, and there was a taste of copper in his mouth. Don't turn round slowly. Turn round fast. He spun, screamed and thrust. The stake met resistance, which yielded only slightly. A long pale face grinned at him in the blue light. It showed rows of pointy teeth. 'Missed both my hearts,' said Mr Gryle, spitting blood. Moist jumped back as a thin clawed hand sliced through the air, but kept the stake in front of him, jabbing with it, holding the thing off . . . Banshee, he thought. Oh, hell . . . Only when he moved did Gryle's leathery black cape swing aside briefly to show the skeletal figure beneath; it helped if you knew that the black leather was wing. It helped if you thought of banshees as the only humanoid race that had evolved the ability to fly, in some lush jungle somewhere where they'd hunted flying squirrels. It didn't help, much, if you knew why the story had grown up that hearing the scream of the banshee meant that you were going to die. It meant that the banshee was tracking you. No good looking behind you. It was overhead. There weren't many of the feral ones, even in Uberwald, but Moist knew the advice passed on by people who'd survived them. Keep away from the mouth - those teeth are vicious. Don't attack the chest; the flight muscles there are like armour. They're not strong but they've got sinews like steel cables and the long reach of those arm bones'll mean it can slap your silly head right off— Tiddles yowled and backed further under the Sorting Engine. Gryle slashed at Moist again, and came after him as he backed away. —but their necks snap easily if you can get inside their reach, and they have to shut their eyes when they scream.

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