Going Postal (Discworld #33)

9,666
07.03.2019

‘He can try walking the Walk,’ he said. ‘No one can argue if he walks the Walk. An’ then I can tell him everything! So it’ll be all right! An’ if he don’t walk to the end, then he ain’t postmaster material anyway! Stanley? Stanley!’ Stanley awoke from a dream of pins. ‘Yes, Mr Groat?’

‘Got a few errands for you to run, lad.’ And if he ain’t postmaster material, Groat added in the privacy of his creaking brain, I’ll die a junior postman . . . It was hard to knock at a door whilst trying desperately not to make a sound, and in the end Crispin Horsefry gave up on the second aim and just swung on the doorknocker. The noise echoed through the empty street, but no one came to their window. No one in this select street would have come to the window even if a murder was going on. At least in the poorer districts people would have come out to watch, or join in. The door opened. ‘Good evening, thur—’ Horsefry pushed past the stumpy figure and into the dark hallway, waving frantically to the servant to close the door. ‘Shut it, man, shut it! I may have been followed— Good grief, you’re an Igor, aren’t you? Gilt can afford an Igor?’

‘Well done, thur!’ said the Igor. He peered out into the early evening darkness. ‘All clear, thur.’

‘Shut the door, for gods’ sakes!’ moaned Horsefry. ‘I must see Mr Gilt!’

‘The marthter ith having one of hith little thoireeth, thur,’ said Igor. ‘I will thee if he can be dithturbed.’

‘Are any of the others here? Have they— What’s a thwawreath?’

‘A little get-together, thur,’ said Igor, sniffing. The man reeked of drink. ‘A soiree?’

‘Exactly tho, thur,’ said Igor impassively. ‘May I take your highly notitheable long hooded cloak, thur? And be tho kind ath to follow me into the withdrawing room . . .’ And suddenly Horsefry was alone in a big room full of shadows and candlelight and staring eyes, with the door closing behind him. The eyes belonged to the portraits in the big dusty frames that filled the walls, edge to edge. Rumour was that Gilt had bought them outright, and not only the pictures; it was said that he’d bought all the rights in the long dead as well, deed-polled their names, and thus equipped himself with a proud pedigree overnight. That was slightly worrying, even for Horsefry. Everyone lied about their ancestors, and that was fair enough. Buying them was slightly disconcerting, but in its dark, original stylishness it was so very Reacher Gilt. A lot of rumours had begun concerning Reacher Gilt, just as soon as people had noticed him and started asking, “Who is Reacher Gilt? What kind of a name is Reacher, anyway?’ He threw big parties, that was certain. They were the kind of parties that entered urban mythology (Was it true about the chopped liver? Were you there? What about the time when he brought in a troll stripper and three people jumped out of the window? Were you there? And that story about the bowl of sweets? Were you there? Did you see it? Was it true? Were you there?) Half of Ankh-Morpork had been, it seemed, drifting from table to buffet to dance floor to gaming tables, every guest seemingly followed by a silent and obliging waiter with a laden drinks tray. Some said he owned a gold mine, others swore that he was a pirate. And he certainly looked like a pirate, with his long curly black hair, pointed beard and eyepatch. He was even said to have a parrot. Certainly the piracy rumour might explain the apparently bottomless fortune and the fact that no one, absolutely no one, knew anything about him prior to his arrival in the city. Perhaps he’d sold his past, people joked, just like he’d bought himself a new one.

He was certainly piratical in his business dealing, Horsefry knew. Some of the things— ‘Twelve and a half per cent! Twelve and a half per cent!’ When he was sure that he hadn’t in fact had the heart attack he had been expecting all day, Horsefry crossed the room, swaying just like a man who’s had a little drink or two to steady his nerves, and lifted the dark red cloth that, it turned out, concealed the parrot cage. It was in fact a cockatoo, and danced frantically up and down its perch. ‘Twelve and a half per cent! Twelve and a half per cent!’ Horsefry grinned. ‘Ah, you’ve met Alphonse,’ said Reacher Gilt. ‘And to what do I owe this unexpected pleasure, Crispin?’ The door swung slowly behind him into its felt-lined frame, shutting out the sound of distant music. Horsefry turned, the brief moment of amusement evaporating instantly into the fearful turmoil of his soul. Gilt, one hand in the pocket of a beautiful smoking jacket, gave him a quizzical look. ‘I’m being spied on, Readier!’ Horsefry burst out. “Vetinari sent one of—’

‘Please! Sit down, Crispin. I think you require a large brandy.’ He wrinkled his nose. ‘Another large brandy, should I say?’

‘I wouldn’t say no! Had to have a little snifter, you know, just to calm m’nerves! What a day I’ve had!’ Horsefry plumped down into a leather armchair. ‘Did you know there was a watchman on duty outside the bank almost all afternoon?’

‘A fat man? A sergeant?’ said Gilt, handing him a glass. ‘Fat, yes. I didn’t notice his rank.’ Horsefry sniffed. ‘I’ve never had anything to do with the Watch.’

‘I, on the other hand, have,’ said Gilt, wincing to see very fine brandy drunk in the way Horsefry was drinking it. ‘And I gather that Sergeant Colon is in the habit of loitering near large buildings not in case they are stolen, but in fact simply because he enjoys a quiet smoke out of the wind. He is a clown, and not to be feared.’

‘Yes, but this morning one of the revenue officers came to see that old fool Cheeseborough—’

‘Is that unusual, Crispin?’ said Gilt soothingly. ‘Let me top up your glass there . . .’

‘Well, they come once or twice a month,’ Horsefry conceded, thrusting out the empty brandy glass. ‘But—’

‘Not unusual, then. You’re shying at flies, my dear Crispin.’

‘Vetinari is spying on me!’ Horsefry burst out. ‘There was a man in black spying on the house this evening! I heard a noise and I looked out and I could see him standing in the corner of the garden!’

‘A thief, perhaps?’

‘No, I’m fully paid up with the Guild! I’m sure someone was in the house this afternoon, too. Things were moved in my study. I’m worried, Reacher! I’m the one who stands to lose here! If there’s an audit—’

‘You know there won’t be, Crispin.’ Gilt’s voice was like honey. ‘Yes, but I can’t get my hands on all the paperwork, not yet, not until old Cheeseborough retires. And Vetinari’s got lots of little, you know, what are they called . . . clerks, you know, who do nothing but look at li’l bits of paper! They’ll work it out, they will! We bought the Grand Trunk wi’ its own money!’ Gilt patted him on the shoulder. ‘Calm yourself, Crispin. Nothing is going to go wrong. You think about money in the old-fashioned way. Money is not a thing, it is not even a process. It is a kind of shared dream. We dream that a small disc of common metal is worth the price of a substantial meal. Once you wake up from that dream, you can swim in a sea of money.’

The voice was almost hypnotic, but Horsefry’s terror was driving him on. His forehead glistened. ‘Then Greenyham’s pissing in it!’ he snapped, his little eyes aglint with desperate malice. ‘You know that tower widdershins of Lancre that was giving all that trouble a coupla months ago? When we were tol’ it was all due to witches flying into the towers? Hah! It w’s only a witch the firs’ time! Then Greenyham bribed a couple of the new men in the tower to call in a breakdown, and one of them rode like hell for the downstream tower and sen’ him the Genua market figures a good two hours before everyone else got them! That’s how he cornered dried prawns, you know. And dried fish maw and dried ground shrimp. It’s not the firs’ time he’s done it, either! The man is coining it!’ Gilt looked at Horsefry, and wondered whether killing him now would be the best option. Vetinari was clever. You didn’t stay ruler of a fermenting mess of a city like this one by being silly. If you saw his spy, it was a spy he wanted you to see. The way you’d know that Vetinari was keeping an eye on you would be by turning round very quickly and seeing no one at all. Godsdamn Greenyham, too. Some people had no grasp, no grasp at all. They were so . . . small. Using the clacks like that was stupid, but allowing a bottom-feeder like Horsefry to find out about it was indefensible. It was silly. Silly small people with the arrogance of kings, running their little swindles, smiling at the people they stole from, and not understanding money at all. And stupid, pig-like Horsefry had come running here. That made it a little tricky. The door was soundproofed, the carpet was easily replaceable and, of course, Igors were renowned for their discretion, but almost certainly someone unseen had watched the man walk in and therefore it was prudent to ensure that he walked out. ‘Y’r a goo’ man, Reacher Gilt,’ Horsefry hiccuped, waving the brandy glass unsteadily now that it was almost empty again. He put it down on a small table with the exaggerated care of a drunk, but since it was the wrong one of three images of the table sliding back and forth across his vision the glass smashed on the carpet. ‘Sor’

’bout that,’ he slurred. ‘Y’r a goo’ man, so I’m goin’ to gi’ you this. Can’t keep it inna house, can’t keep it, not wi’ Vetininararari’s spies on to me. Can’t burn it neither, ‘sgot everything in it. All the little . . . transactions. Ver’ important. Can’t trust the others, they hate me. You take care of it, eh?’ He pulled out a battered red journal and proffered it unsteadily. Gilt took it, and flicked it open. His eye ran down the entries. ‘You wrote everything down, Crispin?’ he said. ‘Why?’ Crispin looked appalled. ‘Got to keep records, Reacher,’ he said. ‘Can’t cover y’tracks if you don’t know where y’left ’em. Then . . . can put it all back, see, hardly a crime at all.’ He tried to tap the side of his nose, and missed. ‘I shall look after it with great care, Crispin,’ said Gilt. ‘You were very wise to bring it to me.’

‘That means a lot t’me, Reacher,’ said Crispin, now heading for the maudlin stage. ‘You take me serioussoussly, not like Greenyham and his pals. I take the risks, then they treat me like drit. I mean dirt. Bloody goo’ chap, you are. ‘sfunny, y’know, you havin’ an Igor, bloody goo’ chap like you, ‘cos—’ He belched hugely, “cos I heard that Igors only worked for mad chaps. Tot’ly bonkers chaps, y’know, and vampires and whatnot, people who’re a few pennies short of a picnic. Nothing against your man, mark you, he looks a bloody fine fellow, hahaha, several bloody fine fellows . . .’ Readier Gilt pulled him up gently. ‘You’re drunk, Crispin,’ he said. ‘And too talkative. Now, what I’m going to do is call Igor—’

‘Yeth, thur?’ said Igor behind him. It was the kind of service few could afford. ‘—and he’ll take you home in my coach. Make sure you deliver him safely to his valet, Igor. Oh, and when you’ve done that could you locate my colleague Mr Gryle? Tell him I have a little errand for him. Goodnight, Crispin.’ Gilt patted the man on a wobbly cheek. ‘And don’t worry. Tomorrow you’ll find all these little anxieties will have just . . . disappeared.’

‘Ver’ good chap,’ Horsefry mumbled happily. ‘F’r a foreigner . . .’

Igor took Crispin home. By that time the man had reached the ‘jolly drunk’ stage and was singing the kind of song that’s hilarious to rugby players and children under the age of eleven, and getting him into his house must have awoken the neighbours, especially when he kept repeating the verse about the camel. Then Igor drove back home, put the coach away, saw to the horse, and went to the little pigeon loft behind the house. These were big, plump pigeons, not the diseased roof rats of the city, and he selected a fat one, expertly slipped a silver message ring round its leg, and tossed it up into the night. Ankh-Morpork pigeons were quite bright, for pigeons. Stupidity had a limited life in this city. This one would soon find Mr Gryle’s rooftop lodgings, but it annoyed Igor that he never got his pigeons back. Old envelopes rose up in drifts as Moist strode angrily, and sometimes waded angrily, through the abandoned rooms of the Post Office. He was in the mood to kick holes in walls. He was trapped. Trapped. He’d done his best, hadn’t he? Perhaps there really was a curse on this place. Groat would be a good name for it— He pushed open a door and found himself in the big coachyard round which the Post Office was bent like the letter U. It was still in use. When the postal service had collapsed the coach part had survived, Groat had said. It was useful and established and, besides, it owned scores of horses. You couldn’t squash horses under the floor or bag them up in the attic. They had to be fed. More or less seamlessly, the coachmen had taken it over and run it as a passenger service. Moist watched a laden coach roll out of the yard, and then movement up above caught his eye. He had got used to the clacks towers now. Sometimes it seemed as though every roof sprouted one. Most were the new shutter boxes installed by the Grand Trunk Company, but old-fashioned arm semaphores and even signal flags were still well in evidence. Those, though, only worked slowly and by line-of-sight, and there was precious little space for that in the thrusting forest of towers. If you wanted more than the basic service, you went to one of the little clacks companies, and rented a small shutter tower with resident gargoyle to spot incoming messages and access to the bounce towers and, if you were really rich, a trained operator as well. And you paid. Moist had no grasp of or interest in technology, but as he understood it the price was something like an arm or a leg or both. But these observations orbited his brain, as it were, like planetary thoughts around one central, solar thought: why the hell have we got a tower? It was definitely on the roof. He could see it and he could hear the distant rattle of the shutters. And he was sure he’d seen a head, before it ducked out of sight. Why have we got a tower up there, and who is using it? He ran back inside. He’d never spotted a staircase to the roof, but then, who knew what was hidden behind some pile of letters at the end of some blocked corridor . . . He squeezed his way along yet another passage lined with mail sacks, and came out into a space where big, bolted double doors led back to the yard. There were stairs there, leading upwards. Little safety lamps bled little pools of light into the blackness above. That was the Post Office for you, Moist thought – the Regulations said the stairs must be lit and lit they were, decades after anyone ever used them except for Stanley, the lamplighter. There was an old freight elevator here, too, one of those dangerous ones that worked by pumping water in and out of a big rainwater tank on the roof, but he couldn’t work out how to make it go and wouldn’t have trusted it if he could. Groat had said it was broken. At the foot of the stairs, scuffed but still recognizable, was a chalk outline. The arms and legs were not in comfortable positions.

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