Going Postal (Discworld #33)

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07.03.2019

‘Well, I . . . I imagine it’s not very safe for a woman on her own.’

‘What, with all these big strong men here to protect me? Why don’t you go and get your drink?’ Moist got to the bar eventually, by dropping a handful of small change on the floor. That usually cleared the crush a little. When he returned, his seat was occupied by a Currently Friendly Drunk. Moist recognized the type, and the operative word was ‘currently’. Miss Dearheart was leaning back to avoid his attentions and more probably his breath. Moist heard the familiar cry of the generously sloshed. ‘What . . . right? What I’m saying is, right, what I’m saying, narhmean, why won’t you, right, gimme a kiss, right? All I’m saying is—’ Oh gods, I’m going to have to do something, Moist thought. He’s big and he’s got a sword like a

butcher’s cleaver and the moment I say anything he’s going to go right into stage four, Violent Undirected Madman, and they can be surprisingly accurate before they fall over. He put down his drink. Miss Dearheart gave him a very brief look, and shook her head. There was movement under the table, a small fleshy kind of noise and the drunk suddenly bent forward, colour draining from his face. Probably only he and Moist heard Miss Dearheart purr: ‘What is sticking in your foot is a Mitzy “Pretty Lucretia” four-inch heel, the most dangerous footwear in the world. Considered as pounds per square inch, it’s like being trodden on by a very pointy elephant. Now, I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking, “Could she press it all the way through to the floor?” And, you know, I’m not sure about that myself. The sole of your boot might give me a bit of trouble, but nothing else will. But that’s not the worrying part. The worrying part is that I was forced practically at knifepoint to take ballet lessons as a child, which means I can kick like a mule; you are sitting in front of me; and I have another shoe. Good, I can see you have worked that out. I’m going to withdraw the heel now.’ There was a small ‘pop’ from under the table. With great care the man stood up, turned and, without a backward glance, lurched unsteadily away. ‘Can I bother you?’ said Moist. Miss Dearheart nodded, and he sat down, with his legs crossed. ‘He was only a drunk,’ he ventured. ‘Yes, men say that sort of thing,’ said Miss Dearheart. ‘Anyway, tell me that if I hadn’t done that you wouldn’t now be trying to collect all your teeth in your hat. Which you are not wearing, I notice. This must be your secret identity. Sorry, was that the wrong thing to say? You spilled your drink.’ Moist wiped beer off his lapel. ‘No, this is me,’ he said. ‘Pure and unadorned.’

‘You hardly know me and yet you invited me out on a date,’ said Miss Dearheart. ‘Why?’ Because you called me a phoney, Moist thought. You saw through me straight away. Because you didn’t nail my head to the door with your crossbow. Because you have no small talk. Because I’d like to get to know you better, even though it would be like smooching an ashtray. Because I wonder if you could put into the rest of your life the passion you put into smoking a cigarette. In defiance of Miss Maccalariat I’d like to commit hanky-panky with you, Miss Adora Belle Dearheart . . . well, certainly hanky, and possibly panky when we get to know one another better. I’d like to know as much about your soul as you know about mine . . . He said: ‘Because I hardly know you.’

‘If it comes to that, I hardly know you, either,’ said Miss Dearheart. ‘I’m rather banking on that,’ said Moist. This got a smile. ‘Smooth answer. Slick. Where are we really eating tonight?’

‘Le Foie Heureux, of course,’ said Moist. She looked genuinely surprised. ‘You got a reservation?’

‘Oh, yes.’

‘You’ve got a relative that works there, then? You’re blackmailing the maître d’?’

‘No. But I’ve got a table for tonight,’ said Moist. ‘Then it’s some sort of trick,’ said Miss Dearheart. ‘I’m impressed. But I’d better warn you, enjoy the meal. It may be your last.’

‘What?’

‘The Grand Trunk Company kills people, Mr Lipwig. In all kinds of ways. You must be getting on Reacher Gilt’s nerves.’

‘Oh, come on! I’m barely a wasp at their picnic!’

‘And what do people do to wasps, do you think?’ said Miss Dearheart. ‘The Trunk is in trouble,

Mr Lipwig. The company has been running it as a machine for making money. They thought repair would be cheaper than maintenance. They’ve cut everything to the bone – to the bone. They’re people who can’t take a joke. Do you think Reacher Gilt will hesitate for one minute to swat you?’

‘But I’m being very—’ Moist tried. ‘Do you think you’re playing a game with them? Ringing doorbells and running away? Gilt’s aiming to become Patrician one day, everyone says so. And suddenly there’s this . . . this idiot in a big gold hat reminding everyone what a mess the clacks is, poking fun at it, getting the Post Office working again—’

‘Hang on, hang on,’ Moist managed. ‘This is a city, not some cow town somewhere! People don’t kill business rivals just like that, do they?’

‘In Ankh-Morpork? You really think so? Oh, he won’t kill you. He won’t even bother with the formality of going through the Guild of Assassins. You’ll just die. Just like my brother. And he’ll be behind it.’

‘Your brother?’ said Moist. On the far side of the huge room, the evening’s fight began with a well-executed Looking-At-Me-In-A-Funny-Way, earning two points and a broken tooth. ‘He and some of the people who used to work on the Trunk before it was pirated – pirated, Mr Lipwig – were going to start up a new Trunk,’ said Miss Dearheart, leaning forward. ‘They’d scraped up funding somehow for a few demonstration towers. It was going to be more than four times as fast as the old system, they were going to do all kinds of clever things with the coding, it was going to be wonderful. A lot of people gave them their savings, people who’d worked for my father. Most of the good engineers left when my father lost the Trunk, you see. They couldn’t stand Gilt and his bunch of looters. My brother was going to get all our money back.’

‘You’ve lost me there,’ said Moist. An axe landed in the table, and juddered. Miss Dearheart stared at Moist and blew a stream of smoke past his ear. ‘My father was Robert Dearheart,’ she said distantly. ‘He was chairman of the original Grand Trunk Company. The clacks was his vision. Hell, he designed half of the mechanisms in the towers. And he got together with a group of other engineers, all serious men with slide rules, and they borrowed money and mortgaged their houses and built a local system and poured the money back in and started building the Trunk. There was a lot of money coming in; every city wanted to be in on it, everyone was going to be rich. We had stables. I had a horse. Admittedly I didn’t like it much, but I used to feed it and watch it run about or whatever it is they do. Everything was going fine and suddenly he got this letter and there were meetings and they said he was lucky not to go to prison for, oh, I don’t know, something complicated and legal. But the clacks was still making huge amounts. Can you understand that? Reacher Gilt and his gang acted friendly, oh yes, but they were buying up the mortgages and controlling banks and moving numbers around and they pulled the Grand Trunk out from under us like thieves. All they want to do is make money. They don’t care about the Trunk. They’ll run it into the ground and make more money by selling it. When Dad was in charge people were proud of what they did. And because they were engineers they made sure that the towers worked properly, all the time. They even had what they called “walking towers”, prefabricated ones that packed on to a couple of big carts so that if a tower was having serious trouble they could set this one up alongside and start it up and take over the traffic without dropping a single code. They were proud of it, everyone was, they were proud to be a part of it!’

‘You should’ve been there. You should’ve seen it!’ Moist said to himself. He hadn’t meant to say it out loud. Across the room, a man hit another man with his own leg and picked up seven points. ‘Yes,’ said Miss Dearheart. ‘You should have. And three months ago my brother John raised enough to start a rival to the Trunk. That took some doing. Gilt has got tentacles everywhere. Well, John ended up dead in a field. They said he hadn’t clipped his safety rope on. He always did. And now my father just sits and stares at the wall. He even lost his workshop when everything got taken away. We lost our house, of course. Now we live with my aunt in Dolly Sisters. That’s what we’ve come to. When Reacher Gilt talks about freedom he means his, not anyone else’s. And now you pop

up, Mr Moist von Lipwig, all shiny and new, running around doing everything at once. Why?’

‘Vetinari offered me the job, that’s all,’ said Moist. ‘Why did you take it?’

‘It was a job for life.’ She stared at Moist so hard that he began to feel uncomfortable. ‘Well, you’ve managed to get a table at Le Foie Heureux at a few hours’ notice,’ she conceded, as a knife struck a beam behind her. ‘Are you still going to lie if I ask you how?’

‘Yes, I think so.’

‘Good. Shall we go?’ A little pressure lamp burned in the stuffy snugness of the locker room, its glow a globe of unusual brilliance. In the centre of it, magnifying glass in hand, Stanley examined his stamps. This was . . . heaven. Peas are known for their thoroughness, and Stanley was conscientious in the extreme. Mr Spools, slightly unnerved by his smile, had given him all the test sheets and faulty pages, and Stanley was carefully cataloguing them – how many of each, what the errors were, everything. A little tendril of guilt was curling through his mind: this was better than pins, it really was. There could be no end to stamps. You could put anything on them. They were amazing. They could move letters around and then you could stick them in a book, all neat. You wouldn’t get ‘pinhead’s thumb’, either. He’d read about this feeling in the pin magazines. They said you could come unpinned. Girls and marriage were sometimes mentioned in this context. Sometimes an ex-head would sell off his whole collection, just like that. Or at some pin-meet someone would suddenly throw all their pins in the air and run out shouting, ‘Aargh, they’re just pins!’ Up until now, such a thing had been unthinkable to Stanley. He picked up his little sack of unsorted pins, and stared at it. A few days ago, the mere thought of an evening with his pins would have given him a lovely warm, comfortable feeling inside. But now it was time to put away childish pins. Something screamed. It was harsh, guttural, it was malice and hunger given a voice. Small huddling shrew-like creatures had once heard sounds like that, circling over the swamps. After a moment of ancient terror had subsided, Stanley crept over and opened the door. ‘H-hello?’ he called, into the cavernous darkness of the hall. ‘Is there anyone there?’ There was fortunately no reply, but there was some scrabbling up near the roof. ‘We’re closed, you know,’ he quavered. ‘But we’re open again at seven in the morning for a range of stamps and a wonderful deal on mail to Pseudopolis.’ His voice slowed and his brow creased as he tried to remember everything Mr Lipwig had told them earlier. ‘Remember, we may not be the fastest but we always get there. Why not write to your old granny?’

‘I ate my grandmother,’ growled a voice from high in the darkness. ‘I gnawed her bones.’ Stanley coughed. He had not been trained in the art of salesmanship. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Er . . . perhaps an aunt, then?’ He wrinkled his nose. Why was there the stink of lamp oil in the air? ‘Hello?’ he said again. Something dropped out of the dark, bounced off his shoulder and landed on the floor with a wet thud. Stanley reached down, felt around and found a pigeon. At least, he found about half a pigeon. It was still warm, and very sticky.

Mr Gryle sat on a beam high above the hall. His stomach was on fire. It was no good, old habits died too hard. They were bred in the bone. Something warm and feathery fluttered up in front of you and of course you snapped at it. Ankh-Morpork had pigeons roosting on every gutter, cornice and statue. Not even the resident gargoyles could keep them down. He’d had six before he sailed in through the broken dome, and then another huge warm feathery cloud had risen up and a red haze had simply dropped in front of his eyes. They were so tasty. You couldn’t stop at one! And five minutes later you remembered why you should have done. These were feral, urban birds, that lived on what they could find on the streets. Ankh-Morpork streets, at that. They were bobbing, cooing plague pits. You might as well eat a dog turd burger and wash it down with a jumbo cup of septic tank. Mr Gryle groaned. Best to finish the job, get out of here and go and throw up over a busy street. He dropped his oil bottle into the dark and fumbled for his matches. His species had come to fire late, because nests burned too easily, but it did have its uses . . . Flame blossomed, high up at the far end of the hall. It dropped from the beams and landed on the stacks of letters. There was a whoomph as the oil caught fire; blue runnels of flame began to climb the walls. Stanley looked down. A few feet away, lit by the fire crawling across the letters, was a figure curled up on the floor. The golden hat with wings lay next to it. Stanley looked up, eyes glowing red in the firelight, as a figure swooped from the rafters and sped towards him, mouth open. And that’s when it all went wrong for Mr Gryle, because Stanley had one of his Little Moments. Attitude was everything. Moist had studied attitude. Some of the old nobility had it. It was the total lack of any doubt that things would go the way they expected them to go. The maitre d’ ushered them to their table without a moment’s hesitation. ‘Can you really afford this on a government salary, Mr Lipwig?’ said Miss Dearheart as they sat down. ‘Or are we going to exit via the kitchens?’

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