Going Postal (Discworld #33)

9,675
07.03.2019

‘—all by himself,’ said the one-eyed man calmly. ‘Ah, Mr Reacher Gilt,’ said Vetinari, looking directly at him. ‘I’m so . . . pleased to meet you at last.’

‘You don’t come to my parties, my lord,’ said Gilt. ‘Do excuse me. Affairs of state take up so much of my time,’ said Lord Vetinari brusquely. ‘We should all make time to unwind, my lord. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, as they say.’ Several of the assembly paused in their breathing when they heard this, but Vetinari merely looked blank. ‘Interesting,’ he said. He riffled through the files and opened one of them. ‘Now, my staff have prepared some notes for me, from information publicly available down at the Barbican,’ he said to the lawyer. ‘Directorships, for example. Of course, the mysterious world of finance is a closed, aha, ledger to me, but it seems to me that some of your clients work, as it were, for each other?’

‘Yes, my lord?’ said Slant. ‘Is that normal?’

‘Oh, it is quite common for people with particular expertise to be on the board of several companies, my lord.’

‘Even if the companies are rivals?’ said Vetinari. There were smiles from around the table. Most of the financiers settled a little more easily in their chairs. The man was clearly a fool about business matters. What did he know about compound interest, eh? He’d been classically educated. And then they remembered his education had been at the Assassins’ Guild School, and stopped smiling. But Mr Gilt stared intently at Vetinari. ‘There are ways – extremely honourable ways – of assuring confidentiality and avoiding conflicts of interest, my lord,’ said Mr Slant. ‘Ah, this would be . . . what is it now . . . the glass ceiling?’ said Lord Vetinari brightly. ‘No, my lord. That is something else. I believe you may be thinking about the “Agatean Wall”,’

said Mr Slant smoothly. ‘This carefully and successfully ensures that there will be no breach of confidentiality should, for example, one part of an organization come into possession of privileged information which could conceivably be used by another department for unethical gain.’

‘This is fascinating! How does it work, exactly?’ said Vetinari. ‘People agree not to do it,’ said Mr Slant. ‘I’m sorry? I thought you said there is a wall—’ said Vetinari. ‘That’s just a name, my lord. For agreeing not to do it.’

‘Ah? And they do? How wonderful. Even though in this case the invisible wall must pass through the middle of their brains?’

‘We have a Code of Conduct, you know!’ said a voice. All eyes except those belonging to Mr Slant turned to the speaker, who had been fidgeting in his chair. Mr Slant was a long-time student of the Patrician, and when his subject appeared to be a confused civil servant asking innocent questions it was time to watch him closely. ‘I’m very glad to hear it, Mr . . . ?’ Vetinari began. ‘Crispin Horsefry, my lord, and I don’t like the tone of your questioning!’ For a moment it seemed that even the chairs themselves edged away from him. Mr Horsefry was a youngish man, not simply running to fat but vaulting, leaping and diving towards obesity. He had acquired at thirty an impressive selection of chins, and now they wobbled with angry pride.* * It is wrong to judge by appearances. Despite his expression, which was that of a piglet having a bright idea, and his mode of speech, which might put you in mind of a small, breathless, neurotic but ridiculously expensive dog, Mr Horsefry might well have been a kind, generous and pious man In the same way, the man climbing out of your window in a stripy jumper, a mask and a great hurry might merely be lost on the way to a fancy-dress party, and the man in the wig and robes at the focus of the courtroom might only be a transvestite who wandered in out of the rain Snap judgements can be so unfair. ‘I do have a number of other tones,’ said Lord Vetinari calmly. Mr Horsefry looked around at his colleagues, who were somehow, suddenly, on the distant horizon. ‘I just wanted to make it clear that we’ve done nothing wrong,’ he muttered. ‘That’s all. There is a Code of Conduct.’

‘I’m sure I’ve not suggested that you have done anything wrong,’ said Lord Vetinari. ‘However, I shall make a note of what you tell me.’ He pulled a sheet of paper towards him and wrote, in a careful copperplate hand, ‘Code of Conduct’. The shifting of the paper exposed a file marked ‘Embezzlement’. The title was of course upside down to the rest of the group and, since presumably it was not intended to be read by them, they read it. Horsefry even twisted his head for a better view. ‘However,’ Vetinari went on, ‘since the question of wrongdoing has been raised by Mr Horsefry,’ and he gave the young man a brief smile, ‘I am sure you are aware of talk suggesting a conspiracy amongst yourselves to keep rates high and competition non-existent.’ The sentence came out fast and smooth, like a snake’s tongue, and the swift flick on the end of it was: ‘And, indeed, some rumours about the death of young Mr Dearheart last month.’ A stir among the semicircle of men said that the shoe had been dropped. It wasn’t a welcome shoe, but it was a shoe they had been expecting and it had just gone thud. ‘An actionable falsehood,’ said Slant. ‘On the contrary, Mr Slant,’ said Vetinari, ‘merely mentioning to you the existence of a rumour is not actionable, as I am sure you are aware.’

‘There is no proof that we had anything to do with the boy’s murder,’ snapped Horsefry. ‘Ah, so you too have heard people saying he was murdered?’ said Vetinari, his eyes on Reacher Gilt’s face. ‘These rumours just fly around, don’t they . . .’

‘My lord, people talk,’ said Slant wearily. ‘But the facts are that Mr Dearheart was alone in the tower. No one else went up or down. His safety line was apparently not clipped to anything. It was an accident, such as happens often. Yes, we know people say his fingers were broken, but with a fall of that distance, hitting the tower on the way, can that really be surprising? Alas, the Grand Trunk Company is not popular at the moment and so these scurrilous and baseless accusations are made. As Mr Horsefry pointed out, there is no evidence whatsoever that what happened was anything more than a tragic accident. And, if I may speak frankly, what exactly is the purpose of calling us here? My clients are busy men.’ Vetinari leaned back and placed his fingers together. ‘Let us consider a situation in which some keen and highly inventive men devise a remarkable system of communication,’ he said. ‘What they have is a kind of passionate ingenuity, in large amounts. What they don’t have is money. They are not used to money. So they meet some . . . people, who introduce them to other people, friendly people, who for, oh, a forty per cent stake in the enterprise give them the much-needed cash and, very important, much fatherly advice and an introduction to a really good firm of accountants. And so they proceed, and soon money is coming in and money is going out but somehow, they learn, they’re not quite as financially stable as they think and really do need more money. Well, this is all fine because it’s clear to all that the basic enterprise is going to be a money tree one day, and does it matter if they sign over another fifteen per cent? It’s just money. It’s not important in the way that shutter mechanisms are, is it? And then they find out that yes, it is. It is everything. Suddenly the world’s turned upside down, suddenly those nice people aren’t so friendly any more, suddenly it turns out that those bits of paper they signed in a hurry, were advised to sign by people who smiled all the time, mean that they don’t actually own anything at all, not patents, not property, nothing. Not even the contents of their own heads, indeed. Even any ideas they have now don’t belong to them, apparently. And somehow they’re still in trouble about money. Well, some run and some hide and some try to fight, which is foolish in the extreme, because it turns out that everything is legal, it really is. Some accept low- level jobs in the enterprise, because one has to live and in any case the enterprise even owns their dreams at night. And yet actual illegality, it would appear, has not taken place. Business is business.’ Lord Vetinari opened his eyes. The men around the table were staring at him. ‘Just thinking aloud,’ he said. ‘I am sure you will point out that this is not the business of the government. I know Mr Gilt will. However, since you acquired the Grand Trunk at a fraction of its value, I note that breakdowns are increasing, the speed of messages has slowed down and the cost to customers has risen. Last week the Grand Trunk was closed for almost three days. We could not even talk to Sto Lat! Hardly “As Fast as Light”, gentlemen.’

‘That was for essential maintenance—’ Mr Slant began. ‘No, it was for repairs,’ snapped Vetinari. ‘Under the previous management the system shut down for an hour every day. That was for maintenance. Now the towers run until they break down. What do you think you are doing, gentlemen?’

‘That, my lord, and with respect, is none of your business.’ Lord Vetinari smiled. For the first time that morning, it was a smile of genuine pleasure. ‘Ah, Mr Reacher Gilt, I was wondering when we’d hear from you. You have been so uncharacteristically silent. I read your recent article in the Times with great interest. You are passionate about freedom, I gather. You used the word “tyranny” three times and the word “tyrant” once.’

‘Don’t patronize me, my lord,’ said Gilt. ‘We own the Trunk. It is our property. You understand that? Property is the foundation of freedom. Oh, customers complain about the service and the cost,

but customers always complain about such things. We have no shortage of customers at whatever cost. Before the semaphore, news from Genua took months to get here, now it takes less than a day. It is affordable magic. We are answerable to our shareholders, my lord. Not, with respect, to you. It is not your business. It is our business, and we will run it according to the market. I hope there are no tyrannies here. This is, with respect, a free city.’

‘Such a lot of respect is gratifying,’ said the Patrician. ‘But the only choice your customers have is between you and nothing.’

‘Exactly,’ said Reacher Gilt calmly. ‘There is always a choice. They can ride a horse a few thousand miles, or they can wait patiently until we can send their message.’ Vetinari gave him a smile that lasted as long as a lightning flash. ‘Or fund and build another system,’ he said. ‘Although I note that every other company that has lately tried to run a clacks system in opposition has failed quite quickly, sometimes in distressing circumstances. Falls from the tops of clacks towers, and so on.’

‘Accidents do happen. It is most unfortunate,’ said Mr Slant stiffly. ‘Most unfortunate,’ Vetinari echoed. He pulled the paper towards him once again, dislodging the files slightly, so that a few more names were visible, and wrote ‘Most unfortunate’. ‘Well, I believe that covers everything,’ he said. ‘In fact, the purpose of this meeting was to tell you formally that I am, at last, reopening the Post Office as planned. This is just a courtesy announcement, but I felt I should tell you because you are, after all, in the same business. I believe the recent string of accidents is now at an en—’ Reacher Gilt chuckled. ‘Sorry, my lord? Did I understand you correctly? You really intend to continue with this folly, in the face of everything? The Post Office? When we all know that it was a lumbering, smug, overstaffed, overweight monster of a place? It barely earned its keep! It was the very essence and exemplar of public enterprise!’

‘It never made much of a profit, it is true, but in the business areas of this city there were seven deliveries a day,’ said Vetinari, cold as the depths of the sea. ‘Hah! Not at the end!’ said Mr Horsefry. ‘It was bloody useless!’

‘Indeed. A classic example of a corroded government organization dragging on the public purse,’ Gilt added. ‘Too true!’ said Mr Horsefry. ‘They used to say that if you wanted to get rid of a dead body you should take it to the Post Office and it’d never be seen again!’

❮❯