Going Postal

Page 8

'I noticed that one,' said Moist. 'It has lots of pictures of young women in leather.'

'Yes, sir. But, to be fair, they're generally holding pins. So, then . . . it's still Total Pins for you, is it?' he added, as if giving a fool one last chance to repent of his folly. 'Yes,' said Moist. 'What's wrong with it?'

'Oh, nothing. Nothing at all.' Dave scratched his stomach thoughtfully. 'It's just that the editor is a bit . . . a bit . . .'

'A bit what?' said Moist. 'Well, we think he's a bit weird about pins, to tell you the truth.' Moist looked around the shop. 'Really?' he said.

Moist went to a nearby cafe and leafed through the magazine. One of the skills of his previous life had been an ability to pick up just enough about anything to sound like an expert, at least to nonexperts. Then he returned to the shop. Everyone had their levers. Often it was greed. Greed was a reliable old standby. Sometimes it was pride. That was Groat's lever. He desperately wanted promotion; you could see it in his eyes. Find the lever, and then it was plain sailing. Stanley, now, Stanley . . . would be easy. Big Dave was examining a pin under a microscope when Moist returned to the shop. The rush hour for pin buying must have been nearly over, because there were only a few laggards ogling the pins under glass, or thumbing through the racks. Moist sidled over to the counter and coughed. 'Yes, sir?' said Big Dave, looking up from his work. 'Back again, eh? They get to you, don't they? Seen anything you like?'

'A packet of pre-perforated pin papers and a tenpenny lucky dip bag, please,' said Moist loudly. The other customers looked up for a moment as Dave pulled the packets off their rack, and then looked down again. Moist leaned over the counter. 'I was wondering,' he whispered hoarsely, 'if you'd got anything a bit . . . you know . . . sharper?' The big man gave him a carefully blank look. 'How d'you mean, sharper?' he said. 'You know,' said Moist. He cleared his throat. 'More . . . pointed.' The doorbell jangled as the last of the customers, sated on pins for one day, stepped out. Dave watched them go and then turned his attention back to Moist. 'A bit of a connoisseur, are we, sir?' he said, winking. 'A serious student,' said Moist. 'Most of the stuff here, well . . .'

'I don't touch nails,' said Dave sharply. 'Won't have 'em in the shop! I've got a reputation to think about! Little kids come in here, you know!'

'Oh no! Strictly pins, that's me!' said Moist hastily. 'Good,' said Dave, relaxing. 'As it happens, I might have one or two items for the genuine collector.' He nodded towards a beaded curtain at the back of the shop. 'Can't put everything on display, not with youngsters around, you know how it is . . .' Moist followed him through the clashing curtain and into the crowded little room behind, where Dave, after looking around con-spiratorially, pulled a small black box off a shelf and flipped it open under Moist's nose. 'Not something you find every day, eh?' said Dave. Gosh, it's a pin, thought Moist, but said 'Wow!' in a tone of well-crafted genuine surprise. A few minutes later he stepped out of the shop, fighting an impulse to turn his collar up. That was the problem with certain kinds of insanity. They could strike at any time. After all, he'd just spent AM$70 on a damn pin! He stared at the little packets in his hand and sighed. As he carefully put them in his jacket pocket, his hand touched something papery. Oh, yes. The S.W.A.L.K. letter. He was about to shove it back when his eye caught sight of the ancient street sign opposite: Lobbin Clout. And as his gaze moved down it also saw, over the first shop in the narrow street: NO.1 A. PARKER & SON'S GREENGROCER'S

HIGH CLAS'S FRUIT AND VEGETABLE'S Well, why not deliver it? Hah! He was the postmaster, wasn't he? What harm could it do? He slipped into the shop. A middle-aged man was introducing fresh carrots, or possibly carrot's, into the life of a bulky woman with a big shopping bag and hairy warts. 'Mr Antimony Parker?' said Moist urgently. 'Be with you in ju'st one moment, s'ir, I'm ju'st—' the man began. 'I just need to know if you are Mr Antimony Parker, that's all,' said Moist. The woman turned to glare at the intruder, and Moist gave her a smile so winning that she blushed and wished just for a moment she'd worn make-up today. 'Thats' father,' said the greengrocer. 'He's out the back, tackling a difficult cabbage—'

'This is his,' said Moist. 'Postal delivery' He put the envelope on the counter and walked quickly out of the shop. Shopkeeper and customer stared down at the pink envelope. 'S'.W.A.L.K?' said Mr Parker. 'Ooh, that takes me back, Mr Parker,' said the woman. 'In my day we used to put that on our letters when we were courting. Didn't you? Sealed With A Loving Kiss. There was S.W.A.L.K., and L.A.N.C.R.E. and . . .' she lowered her voice and giggled, 'K.L.A.T.C.H., of course. Remember?'

'All that pas'sed me by, Mrs Goodbody,' said the greengrocer stiffly. 'And if it mean's young men are s'ending our dad pink envelope's with 'swalk on them, I'm thankful for that. Modern time's, eh?' He turned and raised his voice. 'Father!' Well, that was a good deed for the day, Moist thought. Or a deed, in any case. It looked as though Mr Parker had managed to acquire some sons, one way or another. Still, it was . . . odd to think of all those letters heaped in that old building. You could imagine them as little packets of history. Deliver them, and history went one way. But if you dropped them in the gap between the floorboards, it went the other. Ha. He shook his head. As if one tiny choice by someone unimportant could make that much difference! History had to be a bit tougher than that. It all sprang back eventually, didn't it? He was sure he'd read something, somewhere. If it wasn't like that, no one would ever dare do anything. He stood in the little square where eight roads met, and chose to go home via Market Street. It was as good a way as any other. When he was sure that both Stanley and the golem were busy on the mail mountains, Mr Groat crept away through the labyrinth of corridors. Bundles of letters were stacked so high and tightly that it was all he could do to squeeze through, but at last he reached the shaft of the old hydraulic elevator, long disused. The shaft had been filled up with letters. However, the engineer's ladder was still clear, and that at least went up to the roof. Of course, there was the fire escape outside, but that was outside, and Groat was not over-keen on going outside at the best of times. He inhabited the Post Office like a very small snail in a very large shell. He was used to gloom. Now, slowly and painfully, his legs shaking, he climbed up through the floors of mail and forced open the trapdoor at the top. He blinked and shuddered in the unfamiliar sunlight, and hauled himself out on to the flat roof. He'd never really liked doing this, but what else could he have done? Stanley ate like a bird and Groat mostly got by on tea and biscuits, but it all cost money, even if you went round the markets

just as they closed up, and somewhere in the past, decades ago, the pay had stopped arriving. Groat had been too frightened to go up to the palace to find out why. He was afraid that if he asked for money he'd be sacked. So he'd taken to renting out the old pigeon loft. Where was the harm in that? All the pigeons had joined their feral brethren years ago, and a decent shed was not to be sneezed at in this city, even if it did whiff a bit. There was an outside fire escape and everything. It was a little palace compared to most lodgings. Besides, these lads didn't mind the smell, they said. They were pigeon fanciers. Groat wasn't sure what that entailed, except that they had to use a little clacks tower to fancy them properly. But they paid up, that was the important thing. He skirted the big rainwater tank for the defunct lift and sidled around the rooftops to the shed, where he knocked politely. 'It's me, lads. Just come about the rent,' he said. The door was opened and he heard a snatch of conversation: '. . . the linkages won't stand it for more than thirty seconds . . .'

'Oh, Mr Groat, come on in,' said the man who had opened the door. This was Mr Carlton, the one with the beard a dwarf would be proud of, no, two dwarfs would be proud of. He seemed more sensible than the other two, although this was not hard. Groat removed his hat. 'Come about the rent, sir,' he repeated, peering around the man. 'Got a bit o' news, too. Just thought I'd better mention, lads, we've got a new postmaster. If you could be a bit careful for a while? A nod's as good as a wink, eh?'

'How long's this one going to last, then?' said a man who was sitting on the floor, working on a big metal drum full of what, to Mr Groat, appeared to be very complicated clockwork. 'You'll push him off the roof by Saturday, right?'

'Now, now, Mr Winton, there's no call to make fun of me like that,' said Groat nervously. 'Once he's been here a few weeks and got settled in I'll kind of . . . hint that you're here, all right? Pigeons getting on okay, are they?' He peered around the loft. Only one pigeon was visible, hunched up high in a corner. 'They're out for exercise right now,' said Winton. 'Ah, right, that'd be it, then,' said Groat. 'Anyway, we're a bit more interested in woodpeckers at the moment,' said Winton, pulling a bent metal bar out of the drum. 'See, Alex? I told you, it's bent. And two gears are stripped bare . . .' “Woodpeckers?' said Groat. There was a certain lowering of the temperature, as if he'd said the wrong thing. 'That's right, woodpeckers,' said a third voice. 'Woodpeckers, Mr Emery?' The third pigeon fancier always made Groat nervous. It was the way his eyes were always on the move, as if he was trying to see everything at once. And he was always holding a tube with smoke coming out of it, or another piece of machinery. They all seemed very interested in tubes and cogwheels, if it came to that. Oddly enough, Groat had never seen them holding a pigeon. He didn't know how pigeons were fancied, but he'd assumed that it had to be close up. 'Yes, woodpeckers,' said the man, while the tube in his hand changed colour from red to blue. 'Because . . .' and here he appeared to stop and think for a moment, 'we're seeing if they can be taught to . . . oh, yes, tap out the message when they get there, see? Much better than messenger pigeons.'

'Why?' said Groat. Mr Emery stared at the whole world for a moment. 'Because . . . they can deliver messages in the dark?' he said.

'Well done,' murmured the man dismantling the drum. 'Ah, could be a lifesaver, I can see that,' said Groat. 'Can't see it beating the clacks, though!'

'That's what we want to find out,' said Winton. 'But we'd be very grateful if you didn't tell anyone about this,' said Carlton quickly. 'Here's your three dollars, Mr Groat. We wouldn't want other people stealing our idea, you see.'

'Lips are sealed, lads,' said Groat. 'Don't you worry about it. You can rely on Groat.' Carlton was holding the door open. 'We know we can. Goodbye, Mr Groat.' Groat heard the door shut behind him as he walked back across the roof. Inside the shed, there seemed to be an argument starting; he heard someone say, 'What did you have to go and tell him that for?' That was a bit hurtful, someone thinking that he couldn't be trusted. And, as he eased his way down the long ladder, Groat wondered if he ought to have pointed out that woodpeckers wouldn't fly in the dark. It was amazing that bright lads like them hadn't spotted this flaw. They were, he thought, a bit gullible. A hundred feet down and a quarter of a mile away as the woodpecker flies during daylight, Moist followed the path of destiny. Currently, it was leading him through a neighbourhood that was on the downside of whatever curve you hoped you'd bought your property on the upside of. Graffiti and rubbish were everywhere here. They were everywhere in the city, if it came to that, but elsewhere the garbage was better quality rubbish and the graffiti were close to being correctly spelled. The whole area was waiting for something to happen, like a really bad fire. And then he saw it. It was one of those hopeless little shop fronts that house enterprises with a lifetime measured in days, like Giant Clearance Sale!!! of socks with two heels each, tights with three legs and shirts with one sleeve, four feet long. The window was boarded over, but just visible behind the graffiti above it were the words: The Golem Trust. Moist pushed open the door. Glass crunched under his feet. A voice said, 'Hands where I can see them, mister!' He raised his hands cautiously, while peering into the gloom. There was definitely a crossbow being wielded by a dim figure. Such light as had managed to get round the boards glinted off the tip of the bolt. 'Oh,' said the voice in the dark, as if mildly annoyed that there was no excuse to shoot anybody. 'All right, then. We had visitors last night.'

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