anything, and managed, 'Well, if we don't lose too many staff, and the winter isn't too bad, but of course there's always—' Gilt snapped his fingers. 'By damn, George, you've talked me into it! I'll tell the Board that I'm backing you and to hell with them!'
'Well, that's very kind of you, sir, of course,' said Pony, bewildered, but it's only papering over the cracks, really. If we don't have a major rebuild we're only laying up even more trouble for the future—'
'In a year or so, George, you can lay any plans you like in front of us!' said Gilt jovially. 'Your skill and ingenuity will be the saving of the company! Now I know you're a busy man and I mustn't keep you. Go and perform miracles of economy, Mr Pony!' Mr Pony staggered out, proud and bemused and full of dread. 'Silly old fool,' said Gilt, and reached down and opened the bottom drawer of his desk. He pulled out a beartrap, which he set, with some effort, and then stood in the middle of the floor with his back to it. 'Igor!' he called. 'Yeth, thur,' said Igor, behind him. There was a snap. 'I think thith ith yourth, thur,' Igor added, handing Gilt the sprung trap. Gilt looked down. The man's legs appeared unscathed. 'How did you—' he began. 'Oh, we Igorth are no thtranger to marthterth of an enquiring mind, thur,' said Igor gloomily. 'One of my gentlemen uthed to thtand with hith back to a pit lined with thpiketh, thur. Oh how we chuckled, thur.'
'And what happened?'
'One day he forgot and thtepped into it. Talk about laugh, thur.' Gilt laughed, too, and went back to his desk. He liked that kind of joke. 'Igor, would you say that I'm insane?' he said. Igors are not supposed to lie to an employer. It's part of the Code of the Igors. Igor took refuge in strict linguistic honesty. 'I wouldn't find mythelf able to thay that, thur,' he said. 'I must be, Igor. Either that or everyone else is,' said Gilt. 'I mean, I show them what I do, I show them how the cards are marked, I tell them what I am . . . and they nudge one another and grin and each one of them thinks himself no end of a fine fellow to be doing business with me. They throw good money after bad. They believe themselves to be sharp operators, and yet they offer themselves like little lambs. How I love to see their expressions when they think they're being astute.'
'Indeed, thur,' said Igor. He was wondering if that job at the new hospital was still open. His cousin Igor was already working there and had told him it was wonderful. Sometimes you had to work all night! And you got a white coat, all the rubber gloves you could eat and, best of all, you got rethpect. 'It's so . . . basic,' said Gilt. 'You make money as it runs down, you make money building it up again, you might even make a little money running it, then you sell it to yourself when it collapses. The leases alone are worth a fortune. Give Alphonse his nuts, will you?'
'Twelve and a half per cent! Twelve and a half per cent!' said the cockatoo, sidling up and down the perch excitedly. 'Thertainly, thur,' said Igor, taking a bag out of his pocket and advancing cautiously. Alphonse had a beak like a pair of shears. Or maybe try veterinary work like my other cousin Igor, Igor thought. That was a good traditional area, certainly. Pity about all that publicity when the hamster smashed its way out of its treadmill and ate that man's leg before flying away, but that was Progrethth for you. The important
thing was to get out before the mob arrived. And when your boss started telling thin air how good he was, that was the time. 'Hope is the curse of humanity, Igor,' said Gilt, putting his hands behind his head. 'Could be, thur,' said Igor, trying to avoid the horrible curved beak. 'The tiger does not hope to catch its prey, nor does the gazelle hope to escape the claws. They run, Igor. Only the running matters. All they know is that they must run. And now I must run along to those nice people at the Times, to tell everyone about our bright new future. Get the coach out, will you?'
'Thertainly, thur. If you will excuthe me, I will go and fetch another finger.' I think I'll head back to the mountains, he thought as he went down to the cellar. At least a monster there has the decency to look like one. Flares around the ruins of the Post Office made the night brilliant. The golems didn't need them, but the surveyors did. Moist had got a good deal there. The gods had spoken, after all. It'd do a firm no harm at all to be associated with this phoenix of a building. In the bit that was still standing, shored up and tarpaulined, the Post Office - that is, the people who were the Post Office - worked through the night. In truth there wasn't enough for everyone to do, but they turned up anyway, to do it. It was that kind of night. You had to be there, so that later you could say '. . . and I was there, that very night . . .' Moist knew he ought to get some sleep, but he had to be there too, alive and sparkling. It was . . . amazing. They listened to him, they did things for him, they scuttled around as if he was a real leader and not some cheat and fraud. And there were the letters. Oh, the letters hurt. More and more were coming in, and they were addressed to him. The news had got round the city. It had been in the paper! The gods listened to this man! . . . we will deliver to the gods themselves . . . He was the man with the gold suit and the hat with wings. They'd made a crook the messenger of the gods, and piled on his charred desk the sum of all their hopes and fears . . . badly punctuated, true, and in smudged pencil or free Post Office ink, which had spluttered across the paper in the urgency of writing. 'They think you're an angel,' said Miss Dearheart, who was sitting on the other side of his desk and helping him sort through the pathetic petitions. Every half-hour or so Mr Pump brought up some more. 'Well, I'm not,' snapped Moist. 'You speak to the gods and the gods listen,' said Miss Dearheart, grinning. 'They told you where the treasure was. Now that's what I call religion. Incidentally, how did you know the money was there?'
'You don't believe in any gods?'
'No, of course not. Not while people like Reacher Gilt walk under the sky. All there is, is us. The money . . . ?'
'I can't tell you,' said Moist. 'Have you read some of these letters?' said Miss Dearheart. 'Sick children, dying wives—'
'Some just want cash,' said Moist hurriedly, as if that made it better. 'Whose fault is that, Slick? You're the man who can tap the gods for a wad of wonga!'
'So what shall I do with all these . . . prayers?' said Moist. 'Deliver them, of course. You've got to. You are the messenger of the gods. And they've got stamps on. Some of them are covered in stamps! It's your job. Take them to the temples. You
promised to do that!'
'I never promised to—'
'You promised to when you sold them the stamps!' Moist almost fell off his chair. She'd wielded the sentence like a fist. 'And it'll give them hope,' she added, rather more quietly. 'False hope,' said Moist, struggling upright. 'Maybe not this time,' said Miss Dearheart. 'That's the point of hope.' She picked up the battered remains of Anghammarad's armband. 'He was taking a message across the whole of Time. You think you've got it tough?'
'Mr Lipwig?' The voice floated up from the hall, and at the same time the background noise subsided like a bad souffle. Moist walked over to where a wall had once been. Now, with the scorched floorboards creaking underfoot, he looked right down into the hall. A small part of him thought: we'll have to put a big picture window here when we rebuild. This is just too impressive for words. There was a buzz of whispering and a few gasps. There were a lot of customers, too, even in the early foggy hours. It's never too late for a prayer. 'Is everything all right, Mr Groat?' he called down. Something white was waved in the air. 'Early copy of the Times, sir!' Groat shouted. 'Just in! Gilt's all over the front page, sir! Where you ought to be, sir! You won't like it, sir!' If Moist von Lipwig had been raised to be a clown, he'd have visited shows and circuses and watched the kings of fooldom. He'd have marvelled at the elegant trajectory of the custard pie, memorized the new business with the ladder and the bucket of whitewash and watched with care every carelessly juggled egg. While the rest of the audience watched the display with the appropriate feelings of terror, anger and exasperation, he'd make notes. Now, like an apprentice staring at the work of a master, he read Reacher Gilt's words on the still- damp newspaper. It was garbage, but it had been cooked by an expert. Oh, yes. You had to admire the way perfectly innocent words were mugged, ravished, stripped of all true meaning and decency and then sent to walk the gutter for Reacher Gilt, although 'synergistically' had probably been a whore from the start. The Grand Trunk's problems were clearly the result of some mysterious spasm in the universe and had nothing to do with greed, arrogance and wilful stupidity. Oh, the Grand Trunk management had made mistakes - oops, 'well-intentioned judgements which, with the benefit of hindsight, might regrettably have been, in some respects, in error' - but these had mostly occurred, it appeared, while correcting 'fundamental systemic errors' committed by the previous management. No one was sorry for anything because no living creature had done anything wrong; bad things had happened by spontaneous generation in some weird, chilly, geometrical otherworld, and 'were to be regretted'.* * Another bastard phrase that'd sell itself to any weasel in a tight corner. The Times reporter had made an effort but nothing short of a stampede could have stopped Reacher Gilt in his crazed assault on the meaning of meaning. The Grand Trunk was “about people” and the reporter had completely failed to ask what that meant, exactly? And then there was this piece called “Our Mission” . . . Moist felt the acid rise in his throat until he could spit lacework in a sheet of steel. Meaningless
stupid words, from people without wisdom or intelligence or any skill beyond the ability to water the currency of expression. Oh, the Grand Trunk was for everything, from life and liberty to Mum's home-made Distressed Pudding. It was for everything, except anything. Through a pink mist his eye caught the line: 'safety is our foremost consideration'. Why hadn't the lead type melted, why hadn't the paper blazed rather than be part of this obscenity? The press should have buckled, the roller should have cleaved unto the platen . . . That was bad. But then he saw Gilt's reply to a hasty question about the Post Office. Reacher Gilt loved the Post Office and blessed its little cotton socks. He was very grateful for its assistance during this difficult period and looked forward to future co-operation, although of course the Post Office, in the real modern world, would never be able to compete on anything other than a very local level. Mind you, someone has to deliver the bills, ho ho . . . It was masterly . . . the bastard. 'Er . . . are you okay? Could you stop shouting?' said Miss Dearheart. 'What?' The mists cleared. Everyone in the hall was looking at him, their mouths open, their eyes wide. Watery ink dripped from Post Office pens, stamps began to dry on tongues. 'You were shouting,' said Miss Dearheart. 'Swearing, in fact.' Miss Maccalariat pushed her way through the throng, with an expression of determination. 'Mr Lipwig, I hope never to hear such language in this building again!' she said. 'He was using it about the chairman of the Grand Trunk Company,' said Miss Dearheart, in what was, for her, a conciliatory tone of voice. 'Oh.' Miss Maccalariat hesitated, and then remembered herself. 'Er, in that case . . . perhaps a teensy bit quieter, then?'
'Certainly, Miss Maccalariat,' said Moist obediently. 'And perhaps not the K-word?'
'No, Miss Maccalariat.'
'And also not the L-word, the T-word, both of the S-words, the V-word and the Y-word.'
'Just as you say, Miss Maccalariat.'