Going Postal (Discworld #33)

9,606
07.03.2019

Reacher Gilt was moving through the crowd, like a shark among minnows. He gave Moist a carefully neutral look, and turned to Mr Pony. ‘Is there some problem, gentlemen?’ he said. ‘It’s getting late.’ In a silence punctuated by chuckles from the crowd, Pony tried to explain, in so far as he now had any grip of what was going on. ‘I see,’ said Gilt. ‘You are pleased to make fun of us, Mr Lipwig? Then allow me to say that we of the Grand Trunk will not take it amiss if you should leave now. I think we can spare you a couple of hours, eh?’

‘Oh, certainly,’ said Moist. ‘If it will make you feel any better.’

‘Indeed it will,’ said Gilt gravely. ‘It would be best, Mr Lipwig, if you were a long way away from here.’ Moist heard the tone, because he was expecting it. Gilt was being reasonable and statesmanlike, but his eye was a dark metal ball and there was the harmonic of murder in his voice. And then Gilt said: ‘Is Mr Groat well, Mr Lipwig? I was sorry to hear of the attack.’

‘Attack, Mr Gilt? He was hit by falling timber,’ said Moist. And that question entitles you to no mercy at all, no matter what. ‘Ah? Then I was misinformed,’ said Gilt. ‘I shall know not to listen to rumours in future.’

‘I shall pass on your good wishes to Mr Groat,’ said Moist. Gilt raised his hat. ‘Goodbye, Mr Lipwig. I wish you the best of luck in your gallant attempt. There are some dangerous people on the road.’ Moist raised his own hat and said: ‘I intend to leave them behind very soon, Mr Gilt.’ There, he thought. We’ve said it all, and the nice lady from the newspaper thinks we’re good chums or, at least, just business rivals being stiffly polite to each other. Let’s spoil the mood. ‘Goodbye, ladies and gentlemen,’ he said. ‘Mr Pump, be so good as to put the broom on the coach, would you?’

‘Broom?’ said Gilt, looking up sharply. ‘That broom? The one with stars on it? You’re taking a broomstick?’

‘Yes. It will come in handy if we break down,’ said Moist. ‘I protest, Archchancellor!’ said Gilt, spinning round. ‘This man intends to fly to Genua!’

‘I have no such intention!’ said Moist. ‘I resent the allegation!’

‘Is this why you appear so confident?’ snarled Gilt. And it was a snarl, there and then, a little sign of a crack appearing. A broomstick could travel fast enough to blow your ears off. It wouldn’t need too many towers to break down, and heavens knew they broke down all the time, for a broomstick to beat the clacks to Genua, especially since it could fly direct and wouldn’t have to follow the big dog-leg the coach road and the Grand Trunk took. The Trunk would have to be really unlucky, and the person flying the broom would be really frozen and probably really dead, but a broomstick could fly from Ankh- Morpork to Genua in a day. That might just do it. Gilt’s face was a mask of glee. Now he knew what Moist intended. Round and round she goes, and where she stops, nobody knows . . . It was the heart of any scam or fiddle. Keep the punter uncertain or, if he is certain, make him certain of the wrong thing. ‘I demand that no broomstick is taken on the coach!’ said Gilt to the Archchancellor, which was not a good move. You didn’t demand anything from wizards. You requested. ‘If Mr Lipwig is not confident in his equipment,’ Gilt went on, ‘I suggest he concedes right now!’

‘We’ll be travelling alone on some dangerous roads,’ said Moist. ‘A broomstick might be essential.’

‘However, I am forced to agree with this . . . gentleman,’ said Ridcully, with some distaste. ‘It would not look right, Mr Lipwig.’ Moist threw up his hands. ‘As you wish, sir, of course. It is a blow. May I request even-handed treatment, though?’

‘Your meaning?’ said the wizard. ‘There is a horse stationed at each tower to be used when the tower breaks down,’ said Moist. ‘That is normal practice!’ snapped Gilt. ‘Only in the mountains,’ said Moist calmly. ‘And even then only at the most isolated towers. But today, I suspect, there’s one at every tower. It’s a pony express, Archchancellor, with apologies to Mr Pony. They could easily beat our coach without sending a word of code.’

‘You can’t possibly be suggesting that we’d take the message all the way on horseback!’ said Gilt. ‘You were suggesting I’d fly,’ said Moist. ‘If Mr Gilt is not confident in his equipment, Archchancellor, I suggest he concedes now.’ And there it was, a shadow on Gilt’s face. He was more than just irate now; he’d passed into the calm, limpid waters of utter, visceral fury. ‘So let’s agree that this isn’t a test of horses against broomsticks,’ said Moist. ‘It’s stagecoach against clacks tower. If the stage breaks down, we repair the stage. If a tower breaks down, you repair the tower.’

‘That seems fair, I must say,’ said Ridcully. ‘And I so rule. However, I must take Mr Lipwig aside to issue a word of warning.’ The Archchancellor put his arm round Moist’s shoulders and led him round the coach. Then he leaned down until their faces were a few inches apart. ‘You are aware, are you, that painting a few stars on a perfectly ordinary broomstick doesn’t mean it will get airborne?’ he said. Moist looked into a pair of milky blue eyes that were as innocent as a child’s, particularly a child who is trying hard to look innocent. ‘My goodness, doesn’t it?’ he said. The wizard patted him on the shoulder. ‘Best to leave things as they are, I feel,’ he said happily. Gilt smiled at Moist as they returned. It was just too much to resist, so Moist didn’t. Raise the stakes. Always push your luck, because no one else would push it for you. “Would you care for a little personal wager, Mr Gilt?’ he said. ‘Just to make it . . . interesting?’ Gilt handled it well, if you couldn’t read the tells, the little signs . . . ‘Dear me, Mr Lipwig, do the gods approve of gambling?’ he said, and gave a short laugh. ‘What is life but a lottery, Mr Gilt?’ said Moist. ‘Shall we say . . . one hundred thousand dollars?’ That did it. That was the last straw. He saw something snap inside Reacher Gilt. ‘One hundred thousand? Where would you lay your hands on that kind of money, Lipwig?’

‘Oh, I just place them together, Mr Gilt. Doesn’t everyone know that?’ said Moist, to general amusement. He gave the chairman his most insolent smile. ‘And where will you lay your hands on one hundred thousand dollars?’

‘Hah. I accept the wager! We shall see who laughs tomorrow,’ said Gilt bluntly. ‘I’ll look forward to it,’ said Moist. And now I have you in the hollow of my hand, he thought to himself. The hollow of my hand. You’re enraged, now. You’re making wrong decisions. You’re walking the plank.

He climbed up on to the coach and turned to the crowd. ‘Genua, ladies and gentlemen. Genua or bust!’

‘Someone will!’ yelled a wag in the crowd. Moist bowed, and, as he straightened up, looked into the face of Adora Belle Dearheart. ‘Will you marry me, Miss Dearheart?’ he shouted. There was an ‘Oooh’ from the crowd, and Sacharissa turned her head like a cat seeking the next mouse. What a shame the paper had only one front page, eh? Miss Dearheart blew a smoke ring. ‘Not yet,’ she said calmly. This got a mixture of cheers and boos. Moist waved, jumped down beside the driver and said: ‘Hit it, Jim.’ Jim cracked his whip for the sound of the thing, and the coach moved away amidst cheering. Moist looked back, and made out Mr Pony pushing determinedly through the crowd in the direction of the Tump Tower. Then he sat back and looked at the streets, in the light of the coach lamps. Perhaps it was the gold working its way in from outside. He could feel something filling him, like a mist. When he moved his hand, he was sure that it left a trail of flecks in the air. He was still flying. ‘Jim, do I look all right?’ he said. ‘Can’t see much of you in this light, sir,’ said the coachman. ‘Can I ask a question?’

‘Go ahead, please.’

‘Why’d you give those bastards just those middle pages?’

‘Two reasons, Jim. It makes us look good and makes them look like whiny kids. And the other is, it’s the bit with all the colour illustrations. I hear it takes ages to code one of those.’

‘You’re so sharp you’ll cut yourself, Mr Lipwig! Eh? Damn straight!’

‘Drive like the blazes, Jim!’

‘Oh, I know how to give them a show, sir, you can bank on it! HyahP The whip cracked again, and the sound of hooves bounced off the buildings. ‘Six horses?’ said Moist, as they rattled up Broadway. ‘Aye, sir. Might as well make a name for myself, sir,’ said the coachman. ‘Slow down a bit when you get to the old wizard tower, will you? I’ll get off there. Did you get some guards?’

‘Four of them, Mr Lipwig,’ Jim announced. ‘Lying low inside. Men of repute and integrity. Known ’em since we were lads: Nosher Harry, Skullbreaker Tapp, Grievous Bodily Harmsworth and Joe “No Nose” Tozer. They’re mates, sir, don’t you worry, and they’re looking forward to a little holiday in Genua.’

‘Yeah, we’ve all got our buckets and spades,’ growled a voice from inside. ‘I’d rather have them than a dozen watchmen,’ said Jim happily. The coach rattled on, leaving the outlying suburbs behind. The road under the wheels became rougher, but the coach swung and danced along on its steel springs. ‘When you’ve dropped me off you can rein them in a bit. No need to rush, Jim,’ said Moist, after a while. In the light of the coach lamps Moist saw Jim’s red face glow with guile. ‘It’s your Plan, eh, sir?’

‘It’s a wonderful plan, Jim!’ said Moist. And I shall have to make sure it doesn’t work. The lights of the coach disappeared, leaving Moist in chilly darkness. In the distance the faintly glowing smokes of Ankh-Morpork made a great trailing mushroom of cloud that blotted out the

stars. Things rustled in the bushes, and a breeze wafted the scent of cabbages over the endless fields. Moist waited until he got some night vision. The tower appeared, a column of night without stars. All he had to do was find his way through the dense, brambly, root-knotted woodland— He made a noise like an owl. Since Moist was no ornithologist, he did this by saying ‘woo woo’. The woodland exploded with owl hoots, except that these were owls that roosted in the old wizarding tower, which drove you mad in a day. It had no obvious effect on them except that the noises they made resembled every possible sound that could be made by a living or even dying creature. There was definitely some elephant in there, and possibly some hyena, too, with a hint of bedspring. When the din had died down a voice from a few feet away whispered: ‘All right, Mr Lipwig. It’s me, Adrian. Grab my hand and let’s go before the others start fighting again.’

‘Fighting? What about?’

‘They drive each other up the wall! Feel this rope? Can you feel it? Right. You can move fast. We scouted out a trail and strung the rope—’ They hurried through the trees. You had to be really close to the tower to see the glow coming through the ruined doorway at the base. Undecided Adrian had fixed some of his little cold lights up the inner wall. Stones moved under Moist’s feet as he scrambled to the summit. He paid them no attention, but ran up the spiral stair so fast that when he reached the top he spun. Mad Al caught him by the shoulders. ‘No rush,’ he said cheerfully. ‘We’ve got ten minutes to go.’

‘We’d have been ready twenty minutes ago if somebody hadn’t lost the hammer,’ muttered Sane Alex, tightening a wire. ‘What? I put it in the tool box, didn’t I?’ said Mad Al. ‘In the spanner drawer!’

‘So?’

‘Who in their right mind would look for a hammer in the spanner drawer?’ Down below, the owls started up again. ‘Look,’ said Moist quickly, ‘that’s not important, is it? Right now?’

‘This man,’ said Sane Alex, pointing an accusing wrench, ‘this man is mad!’

‘Not as mad as someone who keeps his screws neatly by size in jam jars,’ said Mad Al. ‘That counts as sane!’ said Alex hotly. ‘But everyone knows rummaging is half the fun! Besides—’

‘It’s done,’ said Undecided Adrian. Moist looked up. The Gnu’s clacks machine rose up into the night, just as it had done on the Post Office roof. Behind it, in the direction of the city, an H-shaped structure climbed even further. It looked a little like a ship’s mast, an effect maybe caused by the wires that steadied it. They rattled in the faint breeze. ‘You must have upset someone,’ Adrian went on, while the other two settled down a bit. ‘A message was sent through twenty minutes ago, from Gilt himself. He said the big one will go through duplex, great care must be taken not to change it in any way, there is to be no other traffic at all until there’s a restart message from Gilt, and he’ll personally sack the entire staff of any tower that does not strictly follow those instructions.’

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