Going Postal

Page 42


'Yes, sir. A big bet,' said Stanley happily. 'About you racing the clacks to Genua. People think that's funny. A lot of the bookmakers are offering odds, sir, so Mr Groat is organizing it, sir! He said the odds aren't good, though.'

'I shouldn't think they are,' said Moist weakly. 'No one in their right mind would—'

'He said we'd only win one dollar for every eight we bet, sir, but we reckoned—' Moist shot upright. 'Eight to one odds on?' he shouted. 'The bookies think I'm going to win? How much are you all betting?'

'Er . . . about one thousand two hundred dollars at the last count, sir. Is that—' Pigeons rose from the roof at the sound of Moist von Lipwig's scream. 'Fetch Mr Groat right now!' It was a terrible thing to see guile on the face of Mr Groat. The old man tapped the side of his nose. 'You're the man that got money out o' a bunch of gods, sir!' he said, grinning happily. 'Yes,' said Moist desperately. 'But supposing I - I just did that with a trick . . .'

'Damn good trick, sir,' the old man cackled. 'Damn good. A man who could trick money out of the gods'd be capable of anything, I should think!'

'Mr Groat, there is no way a coach can get to Genua faster than a clacks message. It's two thousand miles!'

'Yes, I realize you've got to say that, sir. Walls have ears, sir. Mum's the word. But we all had a talk, and we reckoned you've been very good to us, sir, you really believe in the Post Office, sir, so we thought: it's time to put our money in our mouth, sir!' said Groat, and now there was a touch of defiance. Moist gaped once or twice. 'You mean “where your mouth is”?'

'You're the man who knows a trick or three, sir! The way you just went into the newspaper office and said, we'll race you! Reacher Gilt walked right into your trap, sir!' Glass into diamond, thought Moist. He sighed. 'All right, Mr Groat. Thank you. Eight to one on, eh?'

'We were lucky to get it, sir. They went up to ten to one on, then they closed the books. All they're accepting now is bets on how you'll win, sir.' Moist perked up a little. 'Any good ideas?' he asked. 'I've got a one-dollar flutter on “by dropping fire from the sky”, sir. Er . . . you wouldn't like to give me a hint, p'raps?'

'Please go and get on with your work, Mr Groat,' said Moist severely. 'Yessir, of course, sir, sorry I asked, sir,' said Groat, and crabbed off.

Moist put his head in his hands. I wonder if it's like this for mountain climbers, he thought. You climb bigger and bigger mountains and you know that one day one of them is going to be just that bit too steep. But you go on doing it, because it's so-o good when you breathe the air up there. And you know you'll die falling. How could people be so stupid? They seemed to cling to ignorance because it smelled familiar. Reacher Gilt sighed. He had an office in the Tump Tower. He didn't like it much, because the whole place shook to the movement of the semaphore, but it was necessary for the look of the thing. It did have an unrivalled view of the city, though. And the site alone was worth what they'd paid for the Trunk. 'It takes the best part of two months to get to Genua by coach,' he said, staring across the rooftops to the Palace. 'He might be able to shave something off that, I suppose. The clacks takes a few hours. What is there about this that frightens you?'

'So what's his game?' said Greenyham. The rest of the board sat around the table, looking worried. 'I don't know,' said Gilt. 'I don't care.'

'But the gods are on his side, Readier,' said Nutmeg. 'Let's talk about that, shall we?' said Gilt. 'Does that claim strike anyone else as odd? The gods are not generally known for no-frills gifts, are they? Especially not ones that you can bite. No, these days they restrict themselves to things like grace, patience, fortitude and inner strength. Things you can't see. Things that have no value. Gods tend to be interested in prophets, not profits, haha.' There were some blank looks from his fellow directors. 'Didn't quite get that one, old chap,' said Stowley. 'Prophets, I said, not profits,' said Gilt. He waved a hand. 'Don't worry yourselves, it will look better written down. In short, Mr Lipwig's gift from above was a big chest of coins, some of them in what look remarkably like bank sacks and all in modern denominations. You don't find this strange?'

'Yes, but even the high priests say he—'

'Lipwig is a showman,' snapped Gilt. 'Do you think the gods will carry his mail coach for him? Do you? This is a stunt, do you understand? It got him on page one again, that's all. This is not hard to follow. He has no plan, other than to fail heroically. No one expects him actually to win, do they?'

'I heard that people are betting heavily on him.'

'People enjoy the experience of being fooled, if it promises a certain amount of entertainment,' said Gilt. 'Do you know a good bookmaker? I shall have a little flutter. Five thousand dollars, perhaps?' This got some nervous laughter, and he followed it up. 'Gentlemen, be sensible. No gods will come to the aid of our Postmaster. No wizard, either. They're not generous with magic and we'll soon find out if he uses any. No, he's looking for the publicity, that's all. Which is not to say,' he winked, 'that we shouldn't, how shall I put it, make certainty doubly sure.' They perked up still more. This sounded like the kind of thing they wanted to hear. 'After all, accidents can happen in the mountains,' said Greenyham. 'I believe that is the case,' said Gilt. 'However, I was referring to the Grand Trunk. Therefore I have asked Mr Pony to outline our procedure. Mr Pony?' The engineer shifted uneasily. He'd had a bad night. T want it recorded, sir, that I have urged a six-hour shutdown before the event,' he said. 'Indeed, and the minutes will show that I have said that is quite impossible,' said Gilt. 'Firstly because it would be an unpardonable loss of revenue, and secondly because sending no messages

would send quite the wrong message.'

'We'll shut down for an hour before the event, then, and clear down,' said Mr Pony. 'Every tower will send a statement of readiness to the Tump and then lock all doors and wait. No one will be allowed in or out. We'll configure the towers to run duplex - that is,' he translated for management, 'we'll turn the down-line into a second up-line, so the message will get to Genua twice as fast. We won't have any other messages on the Trunk while the, er, race is on. No Overhead, nothing. And from now on, sir, from the moment I walk out of this room, we take no more messages from feeder towers. Not even from the one in the Palace, not even from the one in the University.' He sniffed, and added with some satisfaction: '

'specially not them students. Someone's been having a go at us, sir.'

'That seems a bit drastic, Mr Pony?' said Greenyham. 'I hope it is, sir. I think someone's found a way of sending messages that can damage a tower, sir.'

'That's impossi—' Mr Pony's hand slapped the table. 'How come you know so much, sir? Did you sit up half the night trying to get to the bottom of it? Have you taken a differential drum apart with a tin opener? Did you spot how the swage armature can be made to jump off the elliptical bearing if you hit the letter K and then send it to a tower with an address higher than yours, but only if you hit the letter Q first and the drum spring is fully wound? Did you spot that the key levers wedge together and the spring forces the arm up and you're looking at a gearbox full of teeth? Well, I did!'

'Are you talking about sabotage here?' said Gilt. 'Call it what you like,' said Pony, drunk with nervousness. 'I went to the yard this morning and dug out the old drum we took out of Tower 14 last month. I'll swear the same thing happened there. But mostly the breakdowns are in the upper tower, in the shutter boxes. That's where—'

'So our Mr Lipwig has been behind a campaign to sabotage us . . .' Gilt mused. 'I never said that!' said Pony. 'No name need be mentioned,' said Gilt smoothly. 'It's just sloppy design,' said Pony. 'I dare say one of the lads found it by accident and tried it again to see what happened. They're like that, the tower boys. Show 'em a bit of cunning machinery and they'll spend all day trying to make it fail. The whole Trunk's a lash-up, it really is.'

'Why do we employ people like this?' said Stowley, looking bewildered. 'Because they're the only people mad enough to spend their life up a tower miles from anywhere pressing keys,' said Pony. 'They like it.'

'But somebody in a tower must press the keys that do all these . . . terrible things,' said Stowley. Pony sighed. They never took an interest. It was just money. They didn't know how anything worked. And then suddenly they needed to know, and you had to use baby talk. 'The lads follow the signal, sir, as they say,' he said. 'They watch the next tower and repeat the message, as fast as they can. There's no time to think about it. Anything for their tower comes out on the differential drum. They just pound keys and kick pedals and pull levers, as fast as they can. They take pride in it. They even do all kinds of tricks to speed things up. I don't want any talk about sabotage, not right now. Let's just get the message sent, as fast as possible. The lads will enjoy that.'

'The image is attractive,' said Gilt. 'The dark of night, the waiting towers, and then, one by one, they come alive as a serpent of light speeds across the world, softly and silently carrying its . . . whatever. We must get some poet to write about it.' He nodded at Mr Pony. 'We're in your hands, Mr Pony. You're the man with the plan.'

'I don't have one,' said Moist.

'No plan?' said Miss Dearheart. 'Are you telling me you—'

'Keep it down, keep it down!' Moist hissed. 'I don't want everyone to know!' They were in the little cafe near the Pin Exchange which, Moist had noticed, didn't seem to be doing much business today. He'd had to get out of the Post Office, in case his head exploded. 'You challenged the Grand Trunk! You mean you just talked big and hoped something would turn up?' said Miss Dearheart. 'It's always worked before! Where's the sense in promising to achieve the achievable? What kind of success would that be?' said Moist. 'Haven't you ever heard of learning to walk before you run?'

'It's a theory, yes.'

'I just want to be absolutely clear,' said Miss Dearheart. 'Tomorrow night - that's the day after today - you are going to send a coach -that's a thing on wheels, pulled by horses, which might reach fourteen miles an hour on a good road - to race against the Grand Trunk -that's all those semaphore towers, which can send messages at hundreds of miles an hour - all the way to Genua - that's the town which is a very long way away indeed?'

'Yes.'

'And you have no wonderful plan?'

'No.'

'And why are you telling me?'

'Because, in this city, right now, you are the only person who would possibly believe I don't have a plan!' said Moist. 'I told Mr Groat and he just tapped the side of his nose, which is something you wouldn't want to watch, by the way, and said, “Of course you haven't, sir. Not you! Hohoho!”'

'And you just hoped something would turn up? What made you think it would?'

'It always has. The only way to get something to turn up when you need it is to need it to turn up.'

'And I'm supposed to help you how?'

'Your father built the Trunk!'

'Yes, but I didn't,' said the woman. 'I've never been up in the towers. I don't know any big secrets, except that it's always on the point of breaking down. And everyone knows that.'

'People who can't afford to lose are betting money on me! And the more I tell them they shouldn't, the more they bet!'

'Don't you think that's a bit silly of them?' said Miss Dearheart sweetly. Moist drummed his fingers on the edge of the table. 'All right,' he said, 'I can think of another good reason why you might help me. It's a little complicated, so I can only tell you if you promise to sit still and not make any sudden movements.'

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