Going Postal

Page 36

'Is what?' said Miss Dearheart. 'Is music!' declared Moist. He stood up and cupped his hands. 'Hey, you people! Any banjo players out there? A fiddle, maybe? I'll give a one-dollar stamp, highly collectable, to anyone who can pick out a waltz tune. You know, one-two-three, one-two-three?'

'Have you gone completely mad?' said Miss Dearheart. 'You're clearly—'

She stopped, because a shabbily dressed man had tapped Moist on the shoulder. 'I can play the banjo,' he said, 'and my friend Humphrey here can blow the harmonica something cruel. The fee will be a dollar, sir. Coin, please, if it's all the same to you, on account of how I can't write and don't know anyone who can read.'

'My lovely Miss Dearheart,' said Moist, smiling madly at her. 'Do you have any other name? Some pet name or nickname, some delightful little diminutive you don't mind being called?'

'Are you drunk?' she demanded. 'Unfortunately, no,' said Moist. 'But I'd like to be. Well, Miss Dearheart? I even rescued my best suit!' She was taken aback, but an answer escaped before natural cynicism could bar the door. 'My brother used to call me . . . er . . .'


'Killer,' said Miss Dearheart. 'But he meant it in a nice way. Don't you even think about using it.'

'How about Spike?'

'Spike? We-ell, I could live with Spike,' said Miss Dearheart. 'So you will, too. But this is not the time for dancing—'

'On the contrary, Spike,' said Moist, beaming in the firelight, 'this is just the time. We'll dance, and then we'll get things cleaned up ready for opening time, get the mail delivery working again, order the rebuilding of the building and have everything back the way it was. Just watch me.'

'You know, perhaps it is true that working for the Post Office drives people mad,' said Miss Dearheart. 'Just where will you get the money to have this place rebuilt?'

'The gods will provide,' said Moist. 'Trust me on this.' She peered at him. 'You're serious?'

'Deadly,' said Moist. 'You're going to pray for money?'

'Not exactly, Spike. They get thousands of prayers every day. I have other plans. We'll bring the Post Office back, Miss Dearheart. I don't have to think like a policeman, or a postman, or a clerk. I just have to do things my way. And then I'll bankrupt Reacher Gilt by the end of the week.' Her mouth became a perfect O. 'How exactly will you do that?' she managed. 'I've no idea, but anything is possible if I can dance with you and still have ten toes left. Shall we dance, Miss Dearheart?' She was amazed and surprised and bewildered, and Moist von Lipwig liked that in a person. For some reason, he felt immensely happy. He didn't know why, and he didn't know what he was going to do next, but it was going to be fun. He could feel that old electric feeling, the one you got deep inside when you stood right there in front of a banker who was carefully examining an example of your very best work. The universe held its breath, and then the man would smile and say 'Very good, Mr Assumed Name, I will have my clerk bring up the money right away.' It was the thrill not of the chase but of the standing still, of remaining so calm, composed and genuine that, for just long enough, you could fool the world and spin it on your finger. They were the moments he lived for, when he was really alive and his thoughts flowed like quicksilver and the very air sparkled. Later, that feeling would present its bill. For now, he flew. He was back in the game. But, for now, by the light of the burning yesterdays, he waltzed with Miss Dearheart while the scratch band scratched away.

Then she went home to bed, puzzled but smiling oddly, and he went up to his office, which was missing the whole of one wall, and got religion as it had never been got before. The young priest of Offler the Crocodile God was somewhat off-balance at 4 a.m., but the man in the winged hat and golden suit seemed to know what should be happening and so the priest went along with it. He was not hugely bright, which was why he was on this shift. 'You want to deliver this letter to Offler?' he said, yawning. An envelope had been placed in his hand. 'It's addressed to him,' said Moist. 'And correctly stamped. A smartly written letter always gets attention. I've also brought a pound of sausages, which I believe is customary. Crocodiles love sausages.'

'Strictly speaking, you see, it's prayers that go up to the gods,' said the priest doubtfully. The nave of the temple was deserted, except for a little old man in a grubby robe, dreamily sweeping the floor. 'As I understand it,' said Moist, 'the gift of sausages reaches Offler by being fried, yes? And the spirit of the sausages ascends unto Offler by means of the smell? And then you eat the sausages?'

'Ah, no. Not exactly. Not at all,' said the young priest, who knew this one. 'It might look like that to the uninitiated, but, as you say, the true sausagidity goes straight to Offler. He, of course, eats the spirit of the sausages. We eat the mere earthly shell, which believe me turns to dust and ashes in our mouths.'

'That would explain why the smell of sausages is always better than the actual sausage, then?' said Moist. 'I've often noticed that.' The priest was impressed. 'Are you a theologian, sir?' he said. 'I'm in . . . a similar line of work,' said Moist. 'But what I'm getting at is this: if you were to read this letter it would be as though Offler himself was reading it, am I right? Through your eyeballs the spirit of the letter would ascend unto Offler? And then I could give you the sausages.' The young priest looked desperately around the temple. It was too early in the morning. When your god, metaphorically, doesn't do much until the sandbanks have got nice and warm, the senior priests tend to lie in. 'I suppose so,' he said reluctantly. 'But would you rather wait until Deacon Jones gets—'

'I'm in rather a hurry,' said Moist. There was a pause. 'I've brought some honey mustard,' he added. 'The perfect accompaniment to sausages.' Suddenly, the priest was all attention. 'What sort?' he said. 'Mrs Edith Leakall's Premium Reserve,' said Moist, holding up the jar. The young man's face lit up. He was low in the hierarchy and got barely more sausage than Offler. 'God, that's the expensive stuff!' he breathed. 'Yes, it's the hint of wild garlic that does it,' said Moist. 'But perhaps I should wait until Deacon—' The priest grabbed the letter and the jar. 'No, no, I can see you are in a hurry,' he said. 'I'll do it right away. It's probably a request for help, yes?'

'Yes. I'd like Offler to let the light of his eyes and the gleam of his teeth shine on my colleague Tolliver Groat, who is in the Lady Sybil Hospital,' said Moist. 'Oh, yes,' said the acolyte, relieved, 'we often do this sort of—'

'And I would also like one hundred and fifty thousand dollars,' Moist went on. 'Ankh-Morpork dollars preferred, of course, but other reasonably hard currencies would be acceptable.'

There was a certain spring in his step as Moist walked back to the ruin of the Post Office. He'd sent letters to Offler, Om and Blind Io, all important gods, and also to Anoia, a minor goddess of Things That Stick In Drawers.* She had no temple and was handled by a jobbing priestess in Cable Street, but Moist had a feeling that by the end of the day Anoia was destined for higher things. He only picked her because he liked the name. * Often, but not uniquely, a ladle, but sometimes a metal spatula or, rarely, a mechanical egg-whisk that nobody in the house admits to ever buying. The desperate mad rattling and cries of 'How can it close on the damn thing but not open with it? Who bought this? Do we ever use it?' is as praise unto Anoia. She also eats corkscrews. He'd leave it about an hour. Gods worked fast, didn't they? The Post Office was no better by grey daylight. About half of the building was still standing. Even with tarpaulins, the area under cover was small and dank. People were milling around, uncertain of what to do. He'd tell them. The first person he saw was George Aggy, heading for him at a high-speed hobble. 'Terrible thing, sir, terrible thing. I came as soon as—' he began. 'Good to see you, George. How's the leg?'

'What? Oh, feels fine, sir. Glows in the dark, but on the other hand that's a great saving in candles. What are we—'

'You're my deputy while Mr Groat's in hospital,' said Moist. 'How many postmen can you muster?'

'About a dozen, sir, but what shall we—'

'Get the mail moving, Mr Aggy! That's what we do. Tell everyone that today's special is Pseudopolis for ten pence, guaranteed! Everyone else can get on with cleaning up. There's still some roof left. We're open as usual. More open than usual.'

'But . . .' Aggy's words failed him, and he waved at the debris. 'All this?'

'Neither rain nor fire, Mr Aggy!' said Moist sharply. 'Doesn't say that on the motto, sir,' said Aggy. 'It will by tomorrow. Ah, Jim . . .' The coachman bore down on Moist, his enormous driving cape flapping. 'It was bloody Gilt, wasn't it!' he growled. 'Arson around! What can we do for you, Mr Lipwig?'

'Can you still run a service to Pseudopolis today?' said Moist. 'Yes,' said Jim. 'Harry and the lads got all the horses out as soon as they smelled smoke, and only lost one coach. We'll help you, damn right about that, but the Trunk is running okay. You'll be wasting your time.'

'You provide the wheels, Jim, and I'll give them something to carry,' said Moist. 'We'll have a bag for you at ten.'

'You're very certain, Mr Lipwig,' said Jim, putting his head on one side. 'An angel came and told me in my sleep,' said Moist. Jim grinned. 'Ah, that'd be it, then. An angel, eh? A very present help in times of trouble, or so I'm given to understand.'

'So I believe,' said Moist, and went up to the draughty, smoke-blackened, three-walled cave that was the wreckage of his office. He brushed off the ash from the chair, reached into his pocket, and put the Smoking Gnu's letter on his desk.

The only people who could know when a clacks tower would break down must work for the company, right? Or used to work for it, more likely. Hah. That's how things happened. That bank in Sto Lat, for example - he'd never have been able to forge those bills if that bent clerk hadn't sold him that old ledger with all the signatures in. That had been a good day. The Grand Trunk mustn't just make enemies, it must mass-produce them. And now this Smoking Gnu wanted to help him. Outlaw signallers. Think of all the secrets they'd know . . . He'd kept an ear open for clock chimes, and it was gone a quarter to nine now. What would they do? Blow up a tower? But people worked in the towers. Surely not . . . 'Oh, Mr Lipwig!' It is not often that a wailing woman rushes into a room and throws herself at a man. It had never happened to Moist before. Now it happened, and it seemed such a waste that the woman was Miss Maccalariat. She tottered forward and clung to the startled Moist, tears streaming down her face. 'Oh, Mr Lipwig!' she wailed. 'Oh, Mr Lipwig!' Moist reeled under her weight. She was dragging at his collar so hard that he was likely to end up on the floor, and the thought of being found on the floor with Miss Maccalariat was— well, a thought that just couldn't be thoughted. The head would explode before entertaining it. She had a pink hairgrip in her grey hair. It had little hand-painted violets on it. The sight of it, a few inches from Moist's eyes, was curiously disturbing. 'Now, now, steady on, Miss Maccalariat, steady on,' he muttered, trying to keep the balance for both of them. 'Oh, Mr Lipwig!'

'Yes indeed, Miss Maccalariat,' he said desperately. 'What can I do for—'

'Mr Aggy said the Post Office won't ever be rebuilt! He says Lord Vetinari will never release the money! Oh, Mr Lipwig! I dreamed all my life of working on the counter here! My grandmother taught me everything, she even made me practise sucking lemons to get the expression right! I've passed it all on to my daughter, too. She's got a voice that'd take the skin off paint! Oh, Mr Lipwig!' Moist searched wildly for somewhere to pat the woman that wasn't soaked or out of bounds. He settled for her shoulder. He really, really needed Mr Groat. Mr Groat knew how to deal with things like this. 'It's all going to be all right, Miss Maccalariat,' he said soothingly. 'And poor Mr Groat!' the woman sobbed. 'I understand he's going to be fine, Miss Maccalariat. You know what they say about the Lady Sybil: some people come out alive.' I really, really hope he does, he added to himself. I'm lost without him. 'It's all so dreadful, Mr Lipwig!' said Miss Maccalariat, determined to drain the bitter cup of despair to the very dregs. 'We're all going to be walking the streets!' Moist held her by her arms and pushed her gently away, while fighting against a mental picture of Miss Maccalariat walking the streets. 'Now you listen to me, Miss Mac— What is your first name, by the way?'

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